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Thursday, Feb 5, 2009

It’s a week full of worthless efforts at the local Cineplex. Who in their right mind would actually want to see Steve Martin desecrate Peter Sellers legacy? Or wallow in the shallow silliness of a self-help book turned rancid RomCom? While the other mainstream movie this week is best considered Jumper Lite, there are a couple of other choices worth pondering. Henry Selick brings us a new animated classic, while Blair Witch‘s Daniel Myrick turns the War on Terror into something literal. These are the films in focus for 6, February - beginning with the aforementioned stop-motion masterwork:


Coraline [rating: 9]


In a genre packed with derivative visuals and too hip for homeroom pop culture jibes, Coraline is a welcome return to pure animation splendor.

The nostalgic effect of stop motion animation is potent. Indeed, the moment a member of an earlier generation sees the static, superlative work of such single frame artistry, visions of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and his Puppetoons, and the dream factory forged by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass instantly come to mind. It’s all Mad Monster Parties and the adventures of Tubby the Tuba. As the format flourished during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the love for all things Clokey (Gumby), O’Brien (King Kong), and Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) grew. In the ‘80s, Will Vinton carried the magic mantle, while the ‘90s saw Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit gain international approval. read full review…


Push [rating: 4]


Even with all its idiosyncratic elements, Push feels like something we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, said memory is of something far more fascinating and definitely more engaging. 

They say the most important element in a science fiction story is a strong, understandable mythology. Formulate a believable, working, and logistically logical universe where characters and creatures abide by the rules and regulations set before them and you’ve conquered a great deal of the potential problems. As a result, slip ups can be cured with ease and risks rewarded, just as long as the foundation is set and secure. In the new future shock thriller Push, we are introduced to an entirely new (if slightly redundant) race of specialized individuals, people with powers beyond those of mere mortals. Meeting them towards the middle of their real world arc, we gets bits and pieces of how Nazi experiments in psychic warfare led to an X-Men like mutant population capable of great things - and the secret society Hell-bent on controlling them. Regrettably, the aforementioned reference to a certain comic franchise isn’t the only bit of borrowing this film does. Indeed, the whole effort feels lifted from dozens of familiar - and in most cases, superior - offerings. read full review…


The Objective [rating: 7]


Still, it’s the shivers that count, and while Myrick may not make our spine tingle like he did back in the late ‘90s…The Objective is still an impressive piece of work

The genre film, by its very nature, is a bit of a cinematic chameleon. It can function as humor, social commentary, political diatribe, and in rare cases, sobering human tragedy. Coated in the usual celluloid garment of horror and/or science fiction, it takes talent and determination to traverse its pitfall-laden path. Ten years ago, Daniel Myrick made movie history of sorts by releasing his first person POV frightmare The Blair Witch Project. Along with collaborator Eduardo Sanchez, he created a night terror that functioned as a documentary, a pseudo-realistic look at fear as it happened, and a full blown web phenomenon. A critical and commercial ‘event’, the filmmaker retreated for a while, unsure of his next move. Now, almost a decade later, he’s returned with a fine film entitled The Objective. And once again, he has taken the standard scary movie and tweaked it with something different - a little speculative scope. read full review…


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Friday, Jan 30, 2009

It happens every year. Even with the experience of 200+ theatrical releases (and resulting reviews), we can’t get to everything in a wholly timely fashion. Sometimes, it’s an issue of region. Not every critic lives in a metropolitan hotbed like NYC or LA. In other circumstances, it’s a question of priority. Some titles are just more important than others. Over the next two weeks, we here at SE&L hope to remedy some of our 2008 slights. First up, an incredible animated documentary, the last of the Holocaust themed films from the year, and yet another masterpiece from Mike Leigh. So let’s indulge in a little ‘Leftoverture’, shall we? It’s got to be better that what’s playing at the local Cineplex:



Happy-Go-Lucky [rating: 9]


Like anyone given over to giggling more than griping, Poppy - and as an indirect result, Happy-Go-Lucky - slowly becomes addictive.

Poppy is what you would call “self-contained”. She exists within her own unique little universe, content to be a free thinking, free spirited 30 year old independent. She doesn’t balk at the thought of home and family, but finds the liberated looseness of her current life far more fulfilling. She adores her flatmate Zoe, defends her sister Suzy, dotes on the students in her elementary school class, and engulfs life with a kind of zeal matched only by her desire to do the same for others. Unfortunately, Poppy lives in post-millennial London, a city of dark secrets and even darker people. Still, as the star of Mike Leigh’s magnificent Happy-Go-Lucky, she’s always going to try and connect. It’s the reaction from those she’s reaching out to that’s far more telling.  read full review…



Waltz with Bashir [rating: 8]


Waltz with Bashir (is) the best of all possible documentaries - wildly entertaining, keenly informative, and wholly unforgettable.

It’s an exercise in memory, an attempt to recall the unfathomable and unimaginable. It’s animation taking the place of atrocity, the literal spoils of war witnessed in stylized, striking visuals. It’s the story of men who would rather forget, of a time two decades before when the Middle East was measured by chest-pumping challenges and baffling back and forth advances. It’s a documentary and a denouncement, an explanation and an exaggeration - and in the end, it’s one of 2008’s best films, a wildly inventive and shockingly effective cartoon trance that takes us deep into the heart of human darkness and then delves even deeper. read full review…



Defiance [rating: 6]


Defiance is without a doubt the best of the Holocaust themed films from 2008. Unfortunately, that may be faint praise indeed.

The Holocaust remains, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate expression of evil in our lifetime. Outside the obvious elements of genocide and the organized political support for same, the inherent concept that human beings could actually do something like this to each other resonates as the most shocking sentiment of all. So naturally, any story about the struggle against such unfathomable wickedness immediately gets out attention. We don’t really care about the details or the factual fallacies. We just want vengeance, and it better be more than a mere ‘eye for an eye’. When he stumbled upon the story of the Bielski Brothers, Jewish rebels that saved thousand of their fellow persecuted peoples in 1940s Belarus, filmmaker Edward Zwick must have realized he had the makings of one of the most important World War II films ever. Unfortunately, Defiance misses its major opportunities, focusing instead on ancillary issues unimportant to the final cause.  read full review…


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Thursday, Dec 18, 2008

As the end of the year approaches, there is a flood of new films entering your local Bijou. Sure, some have been out for a while, but only in limited release. As awards consideration becomes key, the studios are finally letting the mainstream see many of their very best. For the week before Christmas, 19 December, here’s the films in focus:


Gomorrah [rating: 8]


Tinsel Town can indeed be blamed for making such ‘made’ man movies compelling. Director Matteo Garrone shows us how truly disturbing and unrelenting such a story can be.

It’s all Hollywood’s fault. As far back as the earliest days of the cinematic artform, gangsters and mobsters have been romanticized into outsized figures of operatic grandeur. They are depicted as above the law slicks that take life by the throat and wring out every last ounce of power and influence. The culmination of this concept came in the post-modern movement of the ‘70s. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia as Greek tragedy, The Godfather, and Martin Scorsese’s high strung Manhattan goombah’s (Mean Streets, Goodfellas), La Cosa Nostra has become synonymous with flowered filmmaking. read full review…


Synecdoche, New York [rating: 7]


Clearly centering on the battle between the sexes and the always intriguing collateral damage from same, Charlie Kaufman’s latest example of screenplay extrapolation begins with an obscure definitional allusion…and ends in some sort of self-referential apocalypse.

Love isn’t easy. Neither is life. Both bring us so much sorrow and pain that it’s weird how obsessive we are over each one. We covet them both, loathe the times when we are without them, and wonder why we are being picked by the All Powerful to have neither when others around us seem absolutely flush with same. In Charlie Kaufman’s latest Rubik’s Cube of a film, Synecdoche, New York, a theatrical director with oversized ambitions channels his ongoing issues with existence and emotion into a massive interactive happening that eventually hamstrings his entire being. As he moves through wives and mistresses, daughters and gender bending doubles, he slowly loses track of time, his muse, and eventually, his identity. Sounds like someone who’s spent every waking moment looking for both of those elusive ideals, right?read full review…


Slumdog Millionaire [rating: 10]


(T)his is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.

We all want to escape - our sense of self, our worthless lives, those moments of unfulfilling social conformity. Yet few of us have to literally run for our salvation. Hope usually comes in a moment of clarity, a well learned life lesson, or the unexpected aid of a close friend or family. In essence, karma can occasionally step-in and re-right the order of things. If you have to sprint afterwards, it means that something about your cosmic disposition still isn’t settled. For most of his life, Indian street kid (or “slumdog”) Jamal Malik has been running - from persecution, from pain, and from the poverty that threatens to swallow him whole. Yet it’s within this setting that fascinating filmmaker Danny Boyle finds a ray of solid cinematic hope. He takes it and turns it into what is, unquestionably, one of 2008’s best efforts.read full review…


Yes Man [rating: 6]


With a premise far more promising than anything offered up onscreen, and a star treading water where once he tore **** up, Yes Man is a comedy in theory only.

It’s a very interesting question indeed: outside of a single turn as the voice of a cartoon elephant, is Jim Carrey still a viable box office draw? Better still, in a world filled with Apatow-inspired bromance slacker comedies, are his rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis on Jolt Cola antics still funny? His last two live action roles where nothing special (Fun with Dick and Jane, The Number 23) and he’s had a couple of high profile projects (Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with Tim Burton, for one) fall through. But now, the man once known for literally talking out his ass is back, hoping to garner a bit of that Liar, Liar cred that made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable buffoons. Unfortunately, Yes Man is so subtle in what it tries to accomplish that Carrey’s over the top shenanigans don’t satisfy. Instead, they stand out like an incredibly dated sore thumb. read full review…


Seven Pounds [rating: 6]


Told in an initially engaging, yet eventually aggravating piecemeal style, Seven Pounds is either a wonderful weeper or two-thirds of an actual mainstream film.

If there is one genre that’s in desperate need of a post-modern make-over, it’s the tearjerker. Comedy gets retrofitted every few years, while the action film scours the globe for as much Hong Kong parkour butt kicking uniqueness as possible. Even horror goes through its commercially mandated cycles (we’re back to slasher, FYI). But for those who like a good cry, the weeper stands steady, static and virtually unchanged. It’s always the same disease-of-the-month, only-the-good-die-young dynamic overhauled with a new set of A-list actors and the typical formula of maudlin manipulation and emotion tweaking. Seven Pounds wants to change all that. It wants to earn its pain in a nontraditional, uniquely ambitious manner. And if anyone can sell such an unusual take on this kind of material, it has to be the current reigning box office king, Will Smith, right? Well…read full review…


The Wrestler [rating: 9]


Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general.

Man is not a perfect machine. He is flawed, easily broken, capable of incredibly feats and destined to die off damaged and corrupt. Luckily for most of us, we don’t rely on our bodies to earn our keep. While we need our physicality to function, we are usually not graded or rewarded on it. The athlete, on the other hand, sacrifices his engine every competition, seeking out the structural disrepair we strictly avoid to march one inch closer to immortality. What they never quite understand, however, is that such everlasting fame is elusive and very rare. Even worse, there’s dozens of wannabe replacements all eager to prove their indestructible mantle.read full review…


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Thursday, Dec 11, 2008

Over the next three weeks, no more than 25 films will be opening, all vying for that coveted year-end awards season certificate of approval…and SE&L will be there trying to tackle each and every one. For 12 December, here are just some of the films in focus:


Doubt [rating: 8]


Doubt is not the first “meta” motion picture, but it’s a safe bet that it’s the only one that takes its name, it’s internal conflict, and the resolution of both as a literal fact.

Faith is a very tricky thing. Belief without a foundation in fact, or the possibility of proving either, gives religion its raison d’être, and skeptics their fodder for a hundred careful criticisms. Of course, no one takes into consideration the believer’s side of the situation. On the one hand, there’s the certainty of their conviction. They have no question about the existence of a God, the sacrifice of His son for our sins, and the ongoing presence of both in their daily life. Yet there are also moments of disbelief, times when dogma fails to offer up an explanation or rationale. It is this inherent element of conviction that stands at the center of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, and oddly enough, it’s also a part of the overall experience for the viewer as well.read full review…


The Reader [rating: 5]


(E)verything Schlink was trying to accomplish with his (book) is cast aside for more shots of Kate Winslet naked.

When you turn a book into a movie, context is usually the first creative facet to be sacrificed. Film is so obsessed with movement and plotting and situational conflict that, items such as explanation and rationalization are left to inference and suggestion. Then, it’s up to actors and filmmakers to find the right unspoken subtext.  When law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink wrote his international bestseller, The Reader, back in 1995, he used illiteracy and one character’s growing wealth of knowledge as a means of reflecting on the post-modern ignorance about the Holocaust. It remains a potent literary metaphor. Sadly, the big screen adaption of the novel by The Hours director Stephen Daldry casts aside the symbolism to focus on a mannered May/December romance. The result is a movie so unfocused and forced that we don’t care about any of the characters or their motivational malaise.read full review…


Milk [rating: 9]


So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness.

Harvey Milk was more than a politician. He was more than a grass roots illustration of San Francisco’s struggling gay rights movement and underrepresented population. He was much more than a cultural icon, much more than a martyred victim of a senseless and still slightly unbelievable crime. What Harvey Milk represents is truly present in Gus Van Sant’s stellar telling of the last years of his life. While Milk never excuses the man’s sexuality, or makes it the sole reason for his rise and untimely fall, it does argue that his outrageous outsider status gave him a unique perspective on the role of the government and its people in a democracy. It’s a lesson we could all re-learn today.read full review…


Encounters at the End of the World [rating: 8]


The marketing tagline suggests we “Go Somewhere Cool”. As long as we can go with Herzog, the latter part of that sentiment is a guarantee.

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who works in two distinct arenas. The first can be categorized as ‘man vs. his inherent nature’, the struggles of a being against his or her own psychological and biological predispositions. This is seen most clearly in such important films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Stroszek, and Fitzcarraldo. The second is ‘man vs. nature’ itself. Unlike many directors who stay comfortably in the fictional zone, Herzog loves to explore the real world around him, focusing on such unusual subjects as handicaps (The Land of Silence and Darkness), heroism (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and human frailty (Grizzly Man). Now comes his amazing exploration of Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. But unlike most travelogues, Herzog is more interested in the people than the place..read full review…


 


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Wednesday, Nov 26, 2008

As part of the typical, pre-Turkey Day tradition, Hollywood is handing out a few heaping helpings of holiday weekend wonder. For the upcoming celebration of gluttony and family fellowship, the following films are in focus:


Australia [rating: 6]


That it’s not confrontational or deconstructionist may seem rebellious on paper, but blown up on the big screen for nearly three hours, Australia sure plays as purely conventional.

He’s been making movies since 1992. Yet in 16 years, he’s completed only four projects - 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 2001’s magnificent Moulin Rogue, and now the old school epic named for his native land, Australia. So why has Baz Luhrmann been so lax in his creative output? Granted, there have been a couple of setbacks (he was fast tracking an Alexander the Great pic with Leonardo DiCaprio when Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell beat him to the punch), and has rejected offers to “go Hollywood” to make standard mainstream fare. And yet his latest is so enamored of Tinsel Town’s Golden Age that MGM and Gone with the Wind should get a restraining order. This doesn’t make Australia bad, just antithetical to what we know about Lurmann’s previous patterns.  read full review…



Four Christmases [rating: 1]



Flailing like a dying fish out of water and eventually smelling just as fetid, Four Christmases is stiflingly unfunny.


So this is what five Oscar winners gets you? This is the result of the combined Academy caliber efforts of Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard), Jon Voight (Coming Home), and Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies)? Certainly this quintet, along with some solid satiric support from Wedding Crashers cad Vince Vaughn, and a dash of supplemental slapstick from Swingers pal Jon Favreau, could create a clever, comic Yuletide gem, right? They’ve even got Seth “The King of Kong” Gordon on their side, steering the material toward some edgier environs. And yet, with all this potential talent on tap, Four Christmases ends up a wasted, worthless excuse for holiday humor.  read full review…



Role Models [rating: 7]


Offering a trio of elements so effective that they literally blot out almost everything that’s bad, director David Wain finds a way to milk the current craze for anything Apatow into a sweet, sarcastic slice of coming of age affection

Ever since a certain Mr. Apatow introduced us to a middle aged man child with limited sexual experience, the motion picture comedy has been flooded with what could best be described as ‘self-aware slackers’. You know the type - hard and cynical on the outside, indulging in whatever vice or vices they can in order to make up for the emptiness inside. Eventually, with the help of an understanding gal pal, a bumbling best friend, or a combination of the two, our hapless hero discovers clarity, and in turn, a far more productive outlook on life. This formula has been followed in several recent laugh riots - Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Superbad. Now there’s another name to add to the genre, and while not as consistently funny as the aforementioned efforts, Role Models provides enough solid snickers to eventually win us over. read full review…


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