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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008

It’s time to get back on track as Hollywood continues to unveil its weekly array of tent pole titles. For 11 July, here are the films in focus:


Hellboy 2: The Golden Army [rating: 10]


This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy.

Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result. read full review…



Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D [rating: 6]


As it chugs along like a novice marathon runner aware of its inability to win the race, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D does nothing to dissuade us from its earnest need to entertain.


There is nothing wrong with being generic. There is no crime in staying standard and formulaic. Sure, it signals a kind of creative malaise on the part of the product being discussed, but when it comes right down to it, if something achieves the basic goals of its medium or market, why should it be punished for doing so in a solid and efficient way. This issue seems especially important when considering the latest update of the Jules Verne classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. Though this new film obviously believes it offers a unique twist on the storied adventure romp, it’s really just a standard spectacle wrapped up in a technological gimmick that more or less salvages its existence.  read full review…



In Brief


Meet Dave [rating: 4]


Meet Dave. Dave is a spaceship. He comes from the planet Nil with a scheme to drain all the world’s oceans. Dave is piloted by a collection of Central Casting clichés, the most telling of which is star Eddie Murphy as the Captain, channeling Patrick Stewart by way of the School of Bad British Accents. Our former funnyman is also the ship itself, a silent movie slapstick mugging plot device that never works beyond a basic kid vid mentality. Somehow scripted by MST3K‘s Bill Corbett (in collaboration with TV scribe Rob Greenberg), this middling misfire can’t decide what it wants to be. At any given moment, it’s part speculative sci-fi, part retarded family film, with just a little regressive romance and pop culture discomfort to really mix things up. For something supposedly so future shock, this entire project feels derivative and dated. Granted, it’s not the race-baiting hate crime known as Norbit, but with the same subpar director behind the camera (Brian Robbins needs his DGA card revoked, pronto), we get gay stereotypes battling incomplete ideas for lead lameness. Naturally, nobody wins. At one time, Murphy represented the cutting edge of comedy. Now, high concept paydays like Meet Dave prove he’s only in it for the money, no matter how mediocre the means of achieving said cash may be.


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

With the Fourth arriving on Friday, Hollywood is getting an early jump on the holiday box office bonanza. For 2 July, here are the films in focus:


Hancock [rating: 6]


Hancock is either a brilliant disaster or an often uneven masterwork. It either represents Will Smith’s decision to break free of his formerly fashionable (and profitable) summer movie mythos, or another chink in a box office armor that has shown some signs of wear as of late.

Will Smith is the new up to date version of the late in life career of Charleton Heston. No, he’s not some gun wielding NRA apologist who narrates Bible videos in between bouts with aging. As one of Hollywood’s leading ticket/turnstile draws, he’s embraced the science fiction format in a way no actor has since the one and only Chuckster. From Independence Day, Men in Black, I, Robot, I Am Legend, and now his latest, the surreal super hero movie Hancock, no other contemporary star has dabbled in the speculative as often as he. Sure, he moderates such stints with powerful dramas and urbane comedies, but it’s clear that the majority of his bankability comes from action and adventure. Whether this latest film will advance his reputation remains to be seen. read full review…



The Children of Huang Shi [rating: 5]


The Children of Huang Shi is so desperate to be the Asian Schindler’s List, an example of atrocity draped in abject artistry, that it forgets to lay out the context. 


While it may seem sacrilegious to say it, stories of heroic human efforts during the tenuous dangers of wartime appear to be an international dime a dozen. Just when you think all the narrative bases have been covered, and no other angle could possibly emerge, a film comes along that explains yet another case of will triumphing over evil, spirit surviving the horrors inherent in conflict. Granted, not every one of these tales needs to be illustrated, but that doesn’t stop Tinsel Town from cranking out such indirect apologies. Japan’s torment of China prior to World War II serves as the basis for The Children of Huang Shi, yet another explanatory attempt. Yet as typical with most of these stories, it takes a courageous Caucasian to steer the natives - and the narrative - in the right direction.  read full review…



In Brief


Kit Kittredge: An American Girl [rating: 4]


G Rated fare is so rare in Hollywood these days that even the most mediocre example of kid pandering receives a slap on the patently wholesome back. Who cares then if the premise is founded in a misleading marketing gambit? As a popular doll and book series, the American Girl movies have been boob tube staples of years. Now, Oscar nom Abigail Breslin is aiming her prepubescent crossover appeal by playing the juvenile reporter turned community defender…and she doesn’t even look Nancy Drew-ish. When her dad looses his job and heads off to Chicago in search of work, a Depression era Kit helps her mom convert their Cincinnati abode into a boarding house. While a series of shady and stereotyped characters wander in and out of the front door our high-strung heroine helps the poor misguided hobo population redeem themselves in the eyes of a prejudiced public. In between homeless slurs (usually centering on the term “evil”) and soft sell slapstick, there is an attempt to impart a meaningful message of not judging a book by its penniless cover. Unfortunately, said good intentions get lost in a sea of formulaic plotting and tear-jerking contrivances. Even the mystery at the center of the story delivers an obvious dumbed down denouement.


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Thursday, Jun 26, 2008

Feel that heat? Summer just continues to sizzle. For 24 June, here are the films in focus:


Wanted [rating: 9]


...if they’re not careful, those Marvel superheroes better watch out. Wanted could usurp their position as 2008’s best popcorn escape.

Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With this Friday’s release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible vision.read full review…



Wall*E [rating: 10]


WALL*E announces yet another massive leap in technological talent for the fabled filmmakers, a textural, tactile quality that continues to push CG 3D into uncharted artistic arenas.


By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.  read full review…



Standard Operating Procedure [rating: 8]


In some ways, Standard Operating Procedure is too appalling to appreciate. It’s like watching the Nuremberg Trials, Nazis purposefully passing the buck higher and higher up, fully aware that no one above a certain rank is around to take the blame.

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the horrifying images witnessed by the world as part of the investigation of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, very little of said commentary centered on context. The acts inferred by the photos were shocking, even more so when placed alongside the Bush Administration rhetoric that the United States was functioning as “liberators” and “peacekeepers” in a nation already haunted by a ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Yet there were photos of American soldiers, seemingly torturing, humiliating, and endangering the lives of so-called ‘enemy combatants’, all in the name of the War on Terror. read full review…



The Counterfeiters [rating: 8]


What’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era are reduced to a filmic footnote.


By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered. read full review…



Married Life [rating: 4]


There will definitely be an audience for this kind of slow burn situational potboiler, but for many, there will be too much stagnancy and not enough sizzle


Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry - and sometimes separate - that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs period piece drama, Married Life, is so downright flat? Could it be that this filmmaker has finally found the one cinematic category - the noir-tinged whodunit - that defies matrimony’s easy explanations and illustrations? read full review…



The Legend of God’s Gun [rating: 9]


...a shot on video fever dream filtered through the latest high tech post-production optical candy factories to produce one of the most original and unforgettable films of the newly crowned “noughts”.


It’s an interesting time for the once dead film genre known as the Western. Ever since Clint Eastwood snagged an Oscar for his “revisionist” revival of the spiraling cinematic favorite, post-modern moviemakers have embraced a more deconstructed version of the oater. In their mind, the standard element of black hat/white hat, good vs evil no longer holds sway in a society far more ambiguous and ethically unsure. While recent horse operas have tried to trade on those wholesome, old fashioned values (the recently released 3:10 to Yuma), others have actually tried to dig deeper into that dilemma. The 2006 Australian hit The Proposition was one such example, as is the upcoming Brad Pitt ‘epic’ The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both movies see the stereotypical symbolism inherent in the category as a means of making larger, more metaphysical points.  read full review…


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Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

It’s nothing but comedies (and nothing very good) this week - with one limited release exception. For 20 June, here are the films in focus:


The Foot Fist Way [rating: 7]


Built out of the ‘asshole as hero’ mode of amusement, and anchored by a frightening portrayal by lead actor Danny McBride, The Foot Fist Way is a collection of contradictory ideals gelling effortlessly into a smart, savvy whole.

Comedy can come out of a number of circumstances. Sometimes, all you need is a goofy premise, and audiences will laugh without realizing it. At other instances, carefully drawn characters are required to gain the guffaws. There is parody and satire, high minded intellectualism and low brow slapstick. It takes skill to circumnavigate any one of these tenuous elements, while some filmmakers can manage all of them within a single cinematic setting. Such is the case with The Foot Fist Way, a $70,000 independent offering hijacked by Will Ferrell and Andy McKay for their Gary Sanchez Productions. This fudged up little gem may get lost among all the mainstream merriment, but it far surpasses what your sloppy Cineplex car wrecks have to offer. read full review…


Get Smart [rating: 4]


In a current comedy climate where such scant superficiality just won’t cut it, Get Smart is nothing but shallow.

By its very definition, something that’s “generic” is seen as “having no particularly distinctive quality or application”. This doesn’t make the object in question bad, just bland, as (un)exciting as anything else of its kind or type, nothing more or less. When it was announced that the classic Mel Brooks/Buck Henry sitcom from the ‘60s, Get Smart, was getting a post-millennial makeover, fans were skeptical. The hiring of The Office‘s Steve Carrel seemed to smooth things over, and the adding of Alan Arkin and Anne Hathaway were an equally pleasant surprise. Frankly, the filmmakers shouldn’t have bothered. While the casting is keen, the script - and the rest of the film - arrives deader than a double agent during the Cold War.  read full review…
 


Other Releases—In Brief


The Love Guru [rating: 2]


There’s a time, usually between puberty and post-graduate work, where humor revolving around the male genitalia becomes a guaranteed laugh getter. From novel nomenclature (‘wiener’, ‘wang’) to outright male organ riffs, adolescents can’t get enough of the comic crotch shot. This is clearly Mike Myers’ hope as he hurls, trained ape like, his horrendous filmic feces - known as The Love Guru - on unsuspecting summer audiences. As the gamey American Pitka, a self-help hack desperate to beat Deepak Chopra at his own New Age spiel, the former SNL superstar has finally found the proper cement sandals to wear in order to completely sink his career. As our unfunny hero hobbles around Toronto, trying to help star hockey player Darren Roanoke get his scoring groove - and wife - back, we are subjected to an onslaught of penis jokes unseen outside a day camp setting. Toss in bland cameos, Ben Kingsley as a hate crime, obligatory Vern Troyer, and a love interest (Jessica Alba) who’s all stale eye candy, and you’ve got one of the worst movies of the year. Even the most baffling Bollywood extravaganza makes more sense than this meandering mess - and at least it’s trying to entertain its audience. All Myers is doing here is stroking his own ego. The result is nothing short of nauseating.


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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

Feel that heat? Summer is really starting to fire up. For 13 June, here are the films in focus:


The Incredible Hulk [rating: 7]


It has to be said that one of the most “incredible” things about this so-called reinvention of the Hulk is how close it is to Ang Lee’s vision.

When Marvel made the decision to take over the “creative direction” of the big screen adaptations of their characters, geek nation remained skeptical. After all, just because the company knows comic books doesn’t mean it understands the cinematic translations of same. Luckily, Iron Man has quelled a great many of those fears. It stands as Summer 2008’s greatest surprise. Now, hot on the heels of that success comes the reboot of the Incredible Hulk. Yes, Ang Lee already made this movie five years ago, but none except a few clued in critics enjoyed its psychologically-oriented narrative. No, what devotees wanted was a big green giant (and accompanying action “smashing”) they could comprehend and champion. This time around, they more or less got their wish. read full review…


Bigger, Stronger, Faster* [rating: 9]


...if anyone wants to have a serious discussion about the entire supplement situation, this excellent film is a good place to start.

Steroids - the word alone strikes fear in the hearts of sports fans and athletes alike. Thirty years ago, the anabolic hormone replacement therapy was a common, under the counter practice. Everyone from bodybuilders to professional football players hit the ‘juice’ as a means of getting bigger, training harder, and repairing physical damage faster. Such notable superstars as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan admitted to using the substance to gain that all important competitive advantage over others. But somewhere along the last three decades, steroids stopped being subterranean cool. They went from an accepted unspoken supplement to international pariah. In his masterful, sly documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, former power lifter Chris Bell discusses when he thinks the perception changed, and how little change such renewed awareness has actually brought about. read full review…


Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired [rating: 9]


Roman Polanski deserves his badge of dishonor, no question about it. This amazing documentary argues that others need to start sporting one as well.

Ask any casual film fan about Roman Polanski, the brilliant Polish moviemaker responsible for ‘70s classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, and you’re likely to get the following response: “Wasn’t he the guy who raped that girl and then ran off to Europe to avoid prosecution?” Indeed, eight years to the day that his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in the Helter Skelter rampage of Charlie Manson and his family, the director was to be placed on trial for the seduction, drugging, and ‘he said/she said’ sexual encounter with a 13 year old girl. At the time, it was a true tabloid sensation, a circus wrapped inside the most sizzling of scandals. Today, it’s a story relegated to the above-mentioned gross overgeneralization. Thanks to Marina Zenovich’s brilliant new documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the closest thing to the truth finally gets a much needed airing. read full review…


Other Releases—In Brief


The Happening [rating: 2]


Newsweek Magazine must still be smarting. Back in 2002, as Signs was gearing up for its box office assault, the publication called M. Night Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg”. Aside from the bald audacity of such a claim, the Indian born filmmaker had only made three films previous. Sure, The Sixth Sense was very good, and Unbreakable perhaps even better, but even the writer/director dismissed his first feature film, Wide Awake, as a failure. Still, many found the periodical’s claim to have some minor merit. With what he had accomplished in such a short time, Shyamalan looked like the real deal. Now he looks like garbage.The Happeningis destined to go down as either the kitschiest camp trick ever played on an audience by a former A-list filmmaker, or the last gasp in a career downward spiral so massive that Trent Reznor would be jealous. It takes a bad b-movie ideal, dresses it up in fancy framing and composition, and asks us to believe in its Bert I. Gordon goofiness. Even worse, it doesn’t appear that Shyamalan is simply having a laugh. Pre-publicity has commented on how the director is excited to give fans his first “R-rated” horror film. In interviews, he seems to genuinely believe that this will be a solid scarefest. Clearly, Lady in the Water wasn’t the only delusion this non-autuer suffered from.


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