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

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Feb 14, 2008


For the weekend beginning 14 February, here are the films in focus:


Jumper [rating: 4]


Jumper is junk, a halfway decent premise destroyed by some of the worst hiring choices in the history of motion picture personnel.


Casting is crucial to the success of a film. Just ask anyone who suffered through 2006’s god-awful (no pun intended) remake of The Omen. While audiences could live with Liev Schreiber as the Gregory Peck replacement - barely - in the modern day Antichrist thriller, Julia Stiles sunk every scene she was in. Like a teen mother trying to play grown up in a world where the rules of engagement are beyond her brief years, she diluted the danger in all facets of the copycat creep out. The same thing happens in the new sci-fi stinker Jumper. Between a bafflingly bad Hayden Christensen and a Stiles-like Rachel Bilson as his romantic interest, we wind up with fiction more specious than speculative.  read full review…


Persepolis [rating: 9]


Persepolis is astonishing, a revelation realized in masterful monochrome strokes.


They say the best way to know any culture is through its art. It’s also possible to gain a similar perspective via its artists. Born before the revolution in Iran unseated the reigning Shah, Marjane Satrapi saw her parents idealism embraced, and then eradicated, by a movement meant to free the nation’s tyrannized people. The resulting Islamic fundamentalism, with its deference to Muslim law and chauvinistic ritual, drove Satrapi from her home. Years later, she would reflect on these massive cultural and personal changes in a series of graphic novels. Named Persepolis after the ancient capital of the Persian empire, the brave, original books have now been turned into an equally inventive film. Via stark, stylized animation, and a vignette oriented approach to narrative, we learn the shocking truth that not all rebellion serves the needs of the people. Sometimes, it’s merely change for the sake of same. read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


The Spiderwick Chronicles [rating: 5]


The story of a supernatural world surrounding ours, a domain where fairies battle goblins for control over their magical reality should be stunning. Its scope should sweep us up in conflicts between good and evil, benefice and the baneful, culminating in the ultimate epic showdown. We should want to revisit this realm over and over again, constantly enraptured of the vision and viability it provides. Sadly, none of this occurs during the dysfunctional family film The Spiderwick Chronicles. Even with indie scribe John Sayles involved in the script, this uneven adaptation of all five books by Tony Diterlizzi and Holly Black is nothing more than CGI smoke and mirrors. The characters are flat, their motivations mired in mid-‘80s angst over divorce and parental abandonment, and the action starts up before the proper mythological foundation is formed. Perhaps for a demographic raised on Ritalin, an audience who needs something more than instant gratification out of the typical compliant cinema, this film will fly. Others will be hemmed in by the slipshod sketchiness of Mark Water’s direction and wonder where the awe went.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


For the weekend beginning 18 January, here are the films in focus:


Cloverfield [rating: 9]


Cloverfield is the first great film of 2008


Hype - specifically the viral, Internet marketing kind - has been under the gun recently, thanks in part to the failure in 2006 of Snakes on a Plane. Pimped and overplayed by fans who felt the title alone indicated a pure kitsch confection, the resulting benign b-movie was very good. But compared to the web-based blitzkrieg that came before, excitement and expectations were bound to clash and then be dashed. The failure forced studios to reexamine its information superhighway strategies. It didn’t stop Lost legend J.J. Abrams from embracing the concept for his latest production - the monster destroys Manhattan home movie Cloverfield. Now, after months of speculation and backwards ballyhoo, the novel genre effort has arrived - and it definitely lives up to the propaganda.  read full review…


Cassandra’s Dream [rating: 3]


Trying to balance the demands of his well-meaning motives with the requirements of the genre leaves Allen unsettled and ineffective, two words that encompass the creative draught evident in Cassandra’s Dream.


Remember back when the ultimate Woody Allen reference regarding his recent film output went a little something like this - “I prefer his early, funny films.”? Well, there’s a new movie mantra one can use in association with the former American auteur - “I prefer his earlier films, period.” During a self imposed European exile where one return to form (Match Point) has been masked by a series of substantial disappointments, Allen has indicated he will soon return to the US to overhaul is oeuvre. And if Cassandra’s Dream, his latest underperforming offering, is any indication of his motives, the man clearly recognizes the aesthetic slump he is in. read full review…


There Will Be Blood [rating: 9]


When you remove the turn of the century pretext, There Will Be Blood is really nothing more than a battle between two ancient religions - Christianity and Capitalism.


This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own signature style. All reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil! became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium. read full review…


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Dec 24, 2007


For 25 December, here are the films in focus:


The Great Debaters [rating: 7]


As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. It’s solid, but that’s all.

Sometimes, a movie can be too ambitious. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. The story of all black Wiley College and its historic win over the University of Southern California in a 1935 university debate challenge sounds like the stuff of a surefire inspirational spectacle. There’s human interest, compelling characters, hot button historical context, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of race, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions. read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep [rating: 6]


When one thinks of wholesome family entertainment, the concept of merging ET with a World War II adventure seems slightly surreal. Yet that’s exactly what British author Dick King-Smith did when he created The Water Horse. Using the myth of the Loch Ness monster as a starting point, and borrowing liberally from Spielberg circa little aliens and Empire of the Sun, this slightly convoluted kid’s tale wants to be all cute and cuddly as well as realistic to the trials and tribulations facing England during the Nazi Blitz. Director Jay Russell, who worked some kind of middling magic on his previous directorial efforts - My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting - seems thrown by the competing plotlines. The tone shifts wildly from “aw shucks” corniness to downright danger as little Angus MacMorrow (an annoying Alex Etel) tries to help Baby Nessie avoid mean military men and ever present capture. Standing along the sidelines, looking concerned, are Ben Chaplin (as a handyman with a past) and Emily Watson (as Mom, the harried housekeeper). The wee ones will probably enjoy the opening acts, but once the creature (nicknamed Crusoe) grows up, the finale filled with depth charges and menace will be way too much.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Dec 20, 2007


For the weekend beginning 21 December, here are the films in focus:


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [rating: 10]


As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007.

The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece.    read full review…


Charlie Wilson’s War [rating: 8]


Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort.


Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen. read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story [rating: 8]


The celebrity biopic has become the disaster film of cinematic spoof material. So forced and formulaic that it comes across like a politician’s debate answers, it’s a genre that practically parodies itself - as long as one’s working in clichés. Like the chum on any side of a format that’s jumped the shark, comedy genius Judd Apatow, and his current collaborator Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence), are ready to pick the category’s carcass clean. The result is Walk Hard, a stunningly stupid and wildly hilarious farce that finds solid supporting player John C. Reilly playing the title character, a nimrod rube who uses the tragic death of his brother (and the resulting olfactory malfunction he suffers from) as his ticket to the top. Included along the way are spot on riffs regarding Elvis, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles, along with the typical familial farce that accompanies such rags to riches ridiculousness. While not as tight as Knocked Up or as scatological as Superbad, Walk Hard is one of the year’s biggest surprises. Yet when you consider the creative minds behind it, such a triumph is more or less a given.


National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets [rating: 4]


There was a time when action movies were big, dumb, loud, and mindless - and those were all positive attributes. Buffed up actors spouting crass one liners were the standard hero du jour, and everything had a Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok tendency to blow up…blow up real good. So it’s easy to forgive the latest installment in the burgeoning National Treasure franchise, Book of Secrets, for being so unconscionably stupid. What it can’t gain absolution from is how dull it all is. Dealing with the assassination of Lincoln, the discovery of the fabled lost City of Gold, and the role played by a member of the Gates ancestry in both (potentially), we have Nicholas Cage back as our sleepwalking savior, a treasure hunter in possession of all the possibilities and very little panache. He is joined by fellow Oscar winners Jon Voight and Helen Mirren as blindly bickering parents. Add in the nonstop, non-comic chatter of computer geek sidekick Justin Bartha and vacant love interest Diane Kruger and you’ve got a cast going nowhere fast. Even the mandatory action is lame and uninvolving. As by the book spectacles go, this is barely a pulp paperback. It’s more like an incomplete pamphlet.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Dec 13, 2007


For the weekend beginning 14 December, here are the films in focus:


I Am Legend [rating: 6]


I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong


Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.  read full review…


Margot at the Wedding [rating: 7]


Busy, overdrawn, and working much too hard to get to its less than impressive point, Margot at the Wedding is entertainment as inference.


To steal a line from one Homer J. Simpson, familial dysfunction is the Washington Generals of the independent film genre. When writers and directors want to work outside the parameters of the mainstream, they typically use their own autobiographical angst to portray parents as insensitive louts, brothers and sisters as distant and depressed, and their own immediate relatives as messed up, maudlin burdens. From their perspective, there is no such thing as a happy brood. Instead, every clan is a craven collection of psychosis just waiting for an event to well up and erupt. In the case of Noah Baumbach, it’s a marriage that causes the commotion. Unfortunately, what happens in the days since the arrival of Margot at the Wedding add up to very little that’s believable or enjoyable.  read full review…


Alvin and the Chipmunks [rating: 2]


Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less.


When one reviews the history of pop culture fads and phenomenon, the unlikely popularity of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (aka ‘Dave Seville’) and his studio experiment known as The Chipmunks remains a certified oddity. By speeding up the tape during the recording of an otherwise silly tune (1958’s “The Witch Doctor”) the struggling songwriter came up with a gimmick that wowed a pre-Beatlemania public. Using the woodland creatures as a hook, he crafted the hilarious holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. From then on, the imaginary trio took on all subjects, from ‘60s pop to ‘90s urban country. When Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son carried on the family legacy. After numerous cartoon incarnations, Fox is finally releasing a ‘live action’ version of the squeaky voiced combo. Based on the results, daddy should come back and haunt his misguided progeny ASAP.  read full review…


Look [rating: 7]


Like Short Cuts absent Altman’s metaphysical heft, Look is an oddly compelling little film.


There is no such thing as privacy. Stop kidding yourself. From the moment you leave the house to the second you step back in your supposedly secure abode, the world’s many Big Brothers are constantly watching you. There are cameras on street corners, lenses trained on you as you drive, fill up, or pay your daily tolls. Once at work, bosses monitor your computer, gauging Internet access for abuses and reading email to gain a managerial advantage. In the mall, every fitting room is monitored, every store a shoplifting prevention zone with more manpower than on a military base. Even our leisure is a source of surveillance, marketers and advertisers buying credit histories and charge plate purchases info as a means of making informed demographic decisions. Yet as writer/director Adam Rifkin points out in his intriguing new film Look, life goes on - and we seem oblivious to the fact that someone is constantly watching. read full review…


The Singing Revolution [rating: 7]


Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region.


The fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.  read full review…


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.