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

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Salvation, as dirty and battle-scarred as it might look, is a much more optimistic piece of work. In this more straightforward telling, good seems much more likely to prevail, as does the continuation of the series.

Are we just counting the days until the announcement comes that Mad Max IV is on again, only now with Christian Bale replacing Mel Gibson as the burned-out wanderer of the endtimes? The casual and authoritative ease with which Bale (already the new face of Batman) slips into the warrior skin of Terminator Salvation‘s John Connor clues you in to the fact that he\‘s the new millennium’s action-hero everyman.


Not for a moment does Bale’s Connor seem anything less than the very soul of the human resistance against the machine apocalypse. When he stands up to his superiors to stop a bombing raid that could cripple Skynet but also kill many human prisoners—saying that to do so would make the resistance no better than the mindless machines they fight—the heart jumps a little with pride in the race. It’s a proficient but not particularly moving performance, even much of the plot revolves around Connor’s trying to save the teenage Kyle Reese (aka, his father, eventually) from Skynet. Bale keeps his eyes lidded and his powder dry, exploding only on command. This is a man you would follow into battle and do stupidly heroic things for, but probably could never know.


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Friday, May 15, 2009
Shot on digital and budgeted at a mere $1.7 million, this calm character study stands in direct contrast with his last film -- the big, bombastic, and epic biopic Che!

Believe it or not, it’s been 20 years since a young independent filmmaker named Steven Soderbergh put the outsider genre on the map with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his stunning Golden Palm win at the Cannes Film Festival. Even more amazing is the fact that he turned such an arthouse award into such a stunning run of mainstream success. Sure, he’s crafted such commercial hits as Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and the Oceans franchise, but he always goes back to a more “personal” style of filmmaking, branching off and exploring the medium in efforts like Bubble, Full Frontal, and his most recent turn, The Girlfriend Experience. Shot on digital and budgeted at a mere $1.7 million, this calm character study stands in direct contrast with his last film—the big, bombastic, and epic biopic Che! To say the two films couldn’t be more different would be an understatement. To say they represent the competing facets of Soderbergh’s artistic temperament would be right on target.


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Friday, May 15, 2009
Unlike Da Vinci, which threatened to rewrite the legacy of one of the most important figures in world history, all we have here is a bunch of dead cardinals and the possibility of the Vatican being destroyed.

Dan Brown has no real literary legacy. He’s the fast food of novelists, a summer beach read that pretends to say something profound about the secret state of organized religion. With books like The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, he has extrapolated out stories that deal in centuries old conspiracies and the post-modern means of covering them up. Like Michael Crichton or John Grisham, he takes real elements within his subject matter and works up a whopper of a tale exposing them. Sadly, unlike the previously mentioned authors, his books read better than they play out on the big screen. This was especially true of Da Vinci. Now comes its sequel/prequel, an adaptation of Brown’s first Robert Langdon yarn complete with death, deception, and lots and lots of dialogue. While Angels and Demons surpasses its predecessor in every way, it’s still a sterile, inert thriller.


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Friday, May 8, 2009

It’s no secret that most filmmakers have their muses, directors who came before them from whom they draw inspiration and ideas. While some consider it a complimentary homage, others argue that copying another auteur’s style is nothing more than a cynical creative rip-off. Of course, when you do steal, you really should steal from the very best. In the case of videographer turned big screen helmer Benny Boom, there had to have been better references to crib from than the Guy Ritchie catalog. For his first film, the man behind clips for such famous artists as 50 Cent, Nelly, Busta Rhymes and Akon has decided to make his very own version of the UK maverick’s celluloid rocknrolla. Sadly, Next Day Air is nothing more than Lock, Stock, and Two Pot Smoking, F-Bomb Dropping, Hip Hop Barrels.


For Leo, a job working for his mom at a delivery company has its fair share of travails. Not only is his parent constantly after him for dragging a toke or two while on the clock, but he can’t get away with the thieving, conniving things that favored co-worker Eric does. One day, he delivers a massive package to no good criminals Guch and Brody. It turns out the box contains 10 kilos of high grade cocaine. Seeing themselves getting very rich really quick, the duo contacts local drug kingpin (and Brody’s cousin) Shavoo. While they work out some manner of monetary arrangement, however, Mexican gangster Bodega contacts his underling Jesus and asks if he got the blow. When they find out the stuff is MIA, they begin prowling the neighborhood looking for Leo. Too bad they didn’t hunt a little closer - you see, Jesus and his chica Chita live right down the hall from Guch and Brody.


It’s hard to imagine how something like Next Day Air could actually work. It’s too violent and overloaded with gun-toting bravado to be a full blown comedy. On the other hand, it’s so hackneyed and derivative of the Tarantino pool of crime filmmaking that everything eventually drowns. For a director getting his one (and probably, only) shot at making a statement, why would you mimic someone whose already established? Other novice up and comers like Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (the Crank films) take their cues from other forms of media - comic books, video games, and in High Voltage, the DIY dynamic of homemade cinema. With this effort, Boom goes directly to Snatch, steals all the rapid-cutting ADD amplified gimmickry, and then tosses in a ton of F-bombs to keep things “street”. There is no nuance here, no attempt at doing something clever or artistic. Instead, Next Day Air wants to coast on stunts and other attention-getting. All it does is float like a fetid air biscuit.


The actors often appear lost here, reliable talents like Mos Def (as the con jobbing Eric), Mike Epps (so good in Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) and Donald Faison (Scrubs) reduced to running around limply without a single punchline to provide. There are moments when you see them mouthing lines that you know aren’t funny - and if you look closely, you can tell that they know they’re not funny either. Even worse, the “thriller” element is only exciting to someone who hasn’t spent a long time at their local Cineplex. Between channeling QT, Ritchie, John Woo, and about a dozen other au courant names, you can really tell that this is Blair Cobbs’ first major motion picture script. It reads like something inspired by, not original to. Add in the glaring leaps in logic and rationality (would a person really looking for a package from a ruthless mobster actually let the delivery man go by without a more pointed inquiry?).


There will be those, however, who argue over the “intended” audience for this film, arguing that Boom and Cobbs are simply playing to a demographic that is grossly underserved by the Tinsel Town entertainment factory. They can argue over the success of Tyler Perry and other urban artists and confirm this fact. While that’s all well and good (and this critic has been known to champion Mr. Madea for his soulful gospel-tinged morality plays), this does not excuse accepting any old piece of garbage aimed your way. To assume that audiences of “color” should clamor for this movie simply because it supposedly plays to their particular perceptions is insulting. No matter your ethnic background, Next Day Air is a talentless travesty, a trying torture fest that wants to believe it’s cool and contemporary. And if you think such vile visuals give your community a bad name, you’ll be doubly offended by what you see here.


Indeed, Next Day Air is a sad excuse for something that, as stated before, no one could have properly pulled off. It’s witless and myopic, viewing the entire world as one big Scarface riff waiting, as Tony Montana would say, to get “****ed”. This is not to preclude Mr. Boom for future success, though one only has this overripe rejects as a means of making such a determination. In fact, this could be the kind of calamity that brings the true visionary out of the pure pretender on display here. Until that fateful day, here’s a warning to audiences intrigued by the possibility of another raw, raucous laughfest. Next Day Air is so bereft of anything remotely hilarious that, if you indeed find something worth snickering over during the course of its cramped 90 minute running time, you’ve clearly discovered a facet of the film not offered up on the screen. In a weekend which sees the bow of one of 2009’s best, this is destined to be one of the worst.


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Thursday, May 7, 2009
While director Abrams' handling of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman's propulsive screenplay is sleek and spiffy, to say the least, it ultimately hews far closer to his television work than might have been wise for a big-screen reboot.

Just minutes into J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, you’re left with no illusions that it’s not going to be a dramatically different creature. As James T. Kirk’s mother screams in the pains of labor while onboard a shuttle hurtling away from a doomed Starfleet vessel that his father is piloting on a kamikaze mission toward a menacing Romulan ship (sacrificing himself to save the hundreds of crew on those shuttles), it seems less like something out of Next Generation than a flash-forward scene from Lost. Not surprisingly, Kirk (Chris Pine, who assumes the character’s egomaniacal mantle with shocking ease) grows up to be a danger-seeking punk with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Enterprise, and a dueling interior drive to either ignore or somehow surpass his father’s towering legacy.


This shameless hammering of emotions and its vision of a person born out of conflict and fire is pure new millennial televisual drama of the kind that fuses thriller conventions with soap opera relationship fireworks. And for the most part, it’s exactly what the Star Trek needed to blast away the fusty old traditions that had barnacled the franchise over the course of ten feature films and five series. But while director Abrams’ handling of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s propulsive screenplay—which introduces each of the franchise’s main characters with a smooth élan—is sleek and spiffy, to say the least, it ultimately hews far closer to his television work than might have been wise for a big-screen reboot.


In short: there’s no Khan.


Eric Bana as Nero in Star Trek

Eric Bana as Nero in Star Trek


Abrams’ style has tended to emphasize the interplay of relationships between his protagonists—their rivalries and loves, in addition to the inevitable moment of heart-clenching sacrifice—at the expense of the opponent they are arrayed against. So it is with Star Trek, in which the villain, a hulking rogue Romulan miner named Nero (Eric Bana), rates barely a flicker of interest. The film is so enveloped by the hormone-stoked heat and pulse of its intertwined origin stories (all those over-achieving young Starfleet cadets), that when they finally face up against Nero and his seemingly unstoppable titan of a planet-annihilating ship, there’s little to latch on to with the guy, much less fear.


Beneath the bulk and tribal tattoos—this film’s Romulans are to their distant cousins the Vulcans what Tolkien’s orcs were to his elves—Bana manages a few flickers of sulfurous enmity, but it all seems more of a delaying tactic before the film gets back to its real interest: the growing friendship between Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto).


Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star Trek

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star Trek


It’s in the spiky moments of this relationship that Abrams finds the beating heart of the story, not the clashes between Starfleet and Nero. An overly quick scrap of exposition about the reason behind Nero’s universe-destroying rage plugs the necessary holes in the plot, but is hardly the stuff of epic drama.


This is not necessarily a bad move, as the whole point of this Star Trek was to reintroduce the franchise to a new generation, and on that score the filmmakers have done a superb job, updating the characters without losing a bit of what made them special in the first place. Also, it doesn’t set up the sequel for automatic disappointment, in the particular way that Star Trek III and IV couldn’t help but seem wan and pale after Ricardo Montalban ran away with Wrath of Khan.


And just think, they haven’t gotten to the Klingons yet…


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