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

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

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.


LA is riddled with crime, but there’s a bigger problem within their midst. You’d figure that the city would love its resident comic book style crime fighter. But John Hancock is a troubled man. Driven to drink by demons he cannot control (or in most cases, remember) and horribly unappreciated - thanks in part to his antisocial attitude and tendency to destroy more than he saves - he still tries to bring down the bad guys. One day, he rescues PR man Ray Embrey from an oncoming train, and in an attempt to return the favor, the image maker proposes to overhaul Hancock’s reputation. This makes his young son ecstatic, and his pretty wife Mary uncomfortable. From the moment she sees the angry superhero, she senses a connection. After a stint in jail and a political change of heart, the public may have forgiven Hancock, but his past seems destined to destroy him.


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. While it cements actor/turned director Peter Berg’s status as a filmmaker to watch (next up for him - another try at bringing Dune to the big screen), it doesn’t do more than his fascinating USA/A-OK actioner of last year, The Kingdom. And with a supporting cast consisting of Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron, it’s hard to question the talent on display. But a quick glance at the film’s history (multiple stints in development Hell over the last few decades) and the numerous names previously attached to it indicates that, considering the chaos it was forged in, we’re lucky that the results are so likeable.


There are actually two movies battling like graphic novel champions to dominate Hancock‘s narrative. One literally wants to wonder about Gods on Earth, how their immortal powers play amongst the more humble elements of humanity. The other feeds off this, turning our surprisingly sour hero into an anger fueled alcoholic who has nothing but contempt for those he’s supposed to serve. Like the shabby My Super Ex-Girlfriend before, Hancock tries to show a jaded populace taking their savior for granted, unable to appreciate the altruistic acts he accomplishes. Instead, there are noisy news reports condemning the destruction that comes with his crime-fighting (isn’t that a given, considering he has to do what people can’t?) and the surliness he projects to cover the pain of being taken for granted.


From an audience perspective, the biggest hurdle to overcome here is the inherent anticipation Smith brings to his projects. From the trailers, the film appears to be a rollicking comedy with some more action-oriented undertones. Our statured celeb will be dishing the dingers and driving home the humor with his natural personality and panache. In truth, the second half spirals into a deep meditation on the notion of fate, and how even beings unbound to this reality can’t avoid its fickle hand. Things turn dark, dour, and very depressive. The moment this happens, at least half the audience will abandon Hancock in a manner similar to how the citizens of LA treat the onscreen character. They won’t buy into the last act dramaturgy, preferring the sequences where Smith curses out old ladies and tosses French-accented bullies up in the air.


Yet it’s this very notion of how to deal with immortal mortality that lifts Hancock above the typical popcorn fare. It suggests something rather intriguing, and director Berg appears comfortable dealing with these more substantive themes. The opening car chase is cute clever, what with the oversized slapstick of our drunken hero using buildings as a backdrop for his unstable gestures. But when he gets down one-on-one, our filmmaker finds engaging ways to deconstruct the genre. Had the film featured more of this, had it stuck to its Tonight He Comes origins (there are too many post-greenlight script doctors to bother mentioning), there’d be something really unique here. By it’s very definition, any attempt to break convention is awkward and disorienting. Unfortunately, Hancock can’t find a way to make said struggles work for itself. Instead, it falls back on old fashioned motion picture majesty - and can’t quite make it all the way.


Smith’s performance is pitched perfectly between art and artifice. He never stretches beyond the boundaries his paycheck demands, but at the same time you can sense he understands where a Hancock success would take him. As part of Berg’s growing company, Jason Bateman does the mild mannered idealist act quite well. He never overplays the obvious one-liners he’s sometimes reduced to relying on. Then there’s Charlize Theron. Given a not so subtle supermodel glow, her role is so ridiculously underwritten that you wonder how the minds behind this movie thought they could get away with it. She’s a last act catalyst, a red herring as real clue creation that definitely fails to live up to the inferences.


In fact, Hancock often feels like the outline for a much larger epic. At 90 minutes, it breezes by on waves of scheduled superficiality, and when it needs to stop and make an impact, editing takes us quickly to the next F/X setpiece. Indeed, the biggest battle within this film is not the one between our hero and the bad guys. Instead, it’s the clash between grand intentions and focus group execution…and it looks like those comment cards almost won out. There will be those who dismiss this movie as nothing more than subpar Smith, a blip on a retail radar that usually brings home the bacon in grand style. But there is something more inventive going on here, a chance at changing the genre dynamic that Tinsel Town just couldn’t handle. The results become an uneven, if ultimately entertaining, experience. Leave it to Smith to succeed despite himself. 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Jun 29, 2008
As part of a double dose of Disney Monday, Chris Barsanti looks at the recent release from CG savants Pixar.

During the expected pre-release hoopla leading up to the ultra-Disney-sized opening for the newest bit of Pixar CGI twee, Wall-E, director/writer Andrew Stanton swore up and down that the film was not supposed to have any sort of environmental message. In interview after mind-numbing roundtable interview (those modern stations of the cross for the entertainment industry to atone for their success), Stanton made it clear that it was a story about one lonely robot falling in love with another robot. Stanton told MTV News that the film was supposed to be “science fiction” and not “science fact.” That is of course true (unless the Disney Wall-E toy robot turns out to be much more intelligent than anticipated). It’s also the kind of statement that a creative person is almost honor-bound to make; one doesn’t sit down at the keyboard or show up to the set (or animation equivalent thereof) every day in order to make a statement. One wants to craft a story.


But, given the unalterably bleak vision of the future that Wall-Econtains, Stanton’s disavowal doesn’t quite ring true. It’s not as though one can simply take the film’s backdrop of devastation and either take it or leave it, as you could for, say, a sci-fi action film where a totalitarian future is nothing more than the excuse necessary to give its characters cool shades and a burning need to utilize high-tech weaponry at the drop of a hat. In Wall-E, the love story between the two robots only exists because of the dystopian vision that surrounds them. The two are inseparable, which is as it should be. One mark of great narrative art is that the setting, characters, and plot mesh together into a cohesive storytelling mechanism. So while Stanton was most likely telling the truth when he said that there was no “message” in the film, that should not be taken to mean that one can either take or leave the film’s quite loud and damning indictment of consumerism. That critique is just as much a part of Wall-E as is the moment when the two robots first hold hands. To say otherwise would be like claiming that the organized crime elements of The Godfather are really secondary to the main story, and quite beside the point.


Wall-E unfolds some seven centuries from now, when the Earth has undergone complete environmental collapse, a sort of fatal and global toxic shock. The planet is all dirt-brown vistas and dead cities, and not a living creature to be seen; like what one could imagine the world in Soylent Green looking like a few decades hence. Wall-E is a robot who’s spent untold centuries puttering around a poisoned Earth, busily compacting the mounds of detritus left by a big-box-shopping culture and turning them into neat little cubes that he then stacks into futuristic obelisks of waste. There’s no end of work for him to do, because as the film’s mostly silent opening makes clear, the humans that blasted off from the planet in 2100 were a frighteningly wasteful lot with plenty in common with those of us watching the film from cushioned stadium seating.


Amidst the rickety skyscrapers and crumbling overpasses, the film splatters everywhere logos for the ubiquitous, 7/11-esque Buy N Large corporation, which, prior to the human race blasting off into outer space in their cruise liner of an ark, seemed to have become the one-stop private/public business/government omnientity in charge of essentially all human activity. There are signs of elephantine big box stores with square miles of parking, and holographic advertisements still flicker up in Wall-E’s determined path from time to time. The message is clear and all the better for its utter lack of subtlety: This is a planet destroyed by overconsumption, aided and abetted by a sickening web of consumer-industrial-complex propaganda, where passivity is purchased by shoveling as much junk food and unnecessary purchases into humanity’s maw. Too much stuff for too many people who don’t need that stuff results in ecosystem-shattering levels of pollution and garbage; Earth is killed by shopping.

One of the perverse ironies of Wall-Eis that the surviving humans (there is no mention of what happened to all the people who couldn’t fit onto the admittedly huge Axiom cruiser) are then coddled into blob-like indolence by even more depraved levels of Barcolounger and Big Gulp-style creature comforts. Having been complicit in the destruction of the home planet, the human species on display in Wall-E is a swaddled band of babies, interested in little beyond the datascreens always plopped right in front of their jowly faces, much like the soulless entities inhabiting E.M. Forster’s prescient 1909 story “The Machine Stops.” It’s nearly impossible to behold these twin nightmares, the blasted Earth and the purgatorial shopper’s paradise of Axiom, and imagine that the film is anything but a clarion call warning of the environmental catastrophe to come. The fact that the robots at the film’s heart are more demonstrably human and brave than practically any of the homo sapiens lurching about, only proves the point more. This is not a species to be impressed by.


Another irony of Wall-E, and one that has rightly been widely noted in the blogsophere, is that the filmmakers participate quite avidly in the same consumerism that their film blasts away at with such heat. By dint of all the thousands upon thousands of plastic Wall-E and EVE toys that Disney will be trucking into the marketplace for this year and (they hope) many more to come, the Pixar boys become part and parcel of the same hypocrisy.


But, then, we all are, of course.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Jun 28, 2008

Filmed back in 2004 but for some reason only trickling out into indie release now, Take Out is a video verite snapshot of a day in the life of a hapless Chinese delivery man trying to come up with hundreds of dollars to pay off a rapacious loan shark. While never trying to overdraw on the meager funds of this simple premise, the film contains a rich wealth of acutely observed sociological detail layered behind the pay-up-or-else storyline. There is no music, very little in the way of a script, and not much hope for a big payoff. Nevertheless, Take Out still stands as more of the more exciting indie releases of the year, inexplicably delayed though it may have been.


Co-written and -directed by Sean Baker, a former writer for Greg the Bunny, Take Out is cast entirely by nonprofessionals and was shot in surprisingly crisp video at a real Manhattan takeout joint up on 103rd and Amsterdam that the filmmakers rigged with microphones. The rhythms of the day are well observed, the opening and closing of the heavy iron shutters, the lunch and dinner rushes, and the endless haggling with customers trying to chisel just a little bit more (“I thought you said it was $3.25, not $4.25;” “Can I get more duck sauce?”).


Having been woken up earlier by the loan shark’s goons who left a warning in the form of a bruising hammer blow to his back, Ming Ding (a moon-faced Charles Jang) borrows over $600 in a couple frantic hours, but is left with a day’s work to make the final $150. After a friendly co-worker lets him take all the deliveries in order to maximize tips, Ming spends the day biking through rain and traffic, delivering to businesses, the projects, luxury apartments, and tiny walk-ups. After a half-hour or so of this, the average viewer will be reduced to Ming’s tunnel vision, eagerly watching every dollar that the customers give out, grimacing at the constant slights (“No speakee English?!”) and overwhelmingly thankful for the tiniest glimpses of human warmth.


For Ming, life in America is all about the looking in, usually just a glimpse of another crowded New York apartment (some elegant, many not so). Amidst the squalling traffic and relentless rain, even the claustrophobic restaurant—the kind of place where the faded photos of all the dishes are on display, and they also serve fries and chicken wings—with its tight-knit band of workers seems like a harbor in the storm. Having put his parents in debt to get to America, leaving behind a wife and a son born after he left, Ming has nobody but these fellow immigrants (most of whom seem to be illegal) to look out for him and no real connection to this raging, squalling, honking city but the money.


At some point Ming may become like the assured pair of cooks who spend the film expertly flinging food in and out of their woks—the filmmakers keep a journalist’s eye on the workings of the restaurant, particularly the voluble Big Sister (effortlessly scene-stealing Wang-Thye Lee) who runs the counter and phone like a master conductor —or he may easily fall the other way, into destitution or deportation. The lack of any safety apparatus or backup plan whatsoever is never spelled out but looms there nonetheless.


There are some who will say that they will never think the same way about ordering Chinese takeout after seeing this film. These, of course, are probably just people who have never had to take minimum-wage (or less) service industry positions in life, and so need to be prodded by something like this film to even consider the lives of those who serve them. But carping about class issues aside, there is something to the idea that Take Out does a service by taking its viewpoint from the outside. Here, the aliens are those strange people who open up their doors for the deliveryman and sigh impatiently as he counts out their change, griping out getting chicken instead of beef or how long the delivery took. Some will at least think twice about welshing on a tip after seeing Take Out, which is more effect than many films with one thousand times the budget have on society.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Jun 26, 2008

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.


Now, Errol Morris, acclaimed director of such fascinating documentaries as The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven, and The Fog of War, wants to uncover the background of this unapologetic policy stain. Via interviews with those involved, those supervising or overseeing the American-occupied Iraq prison system, those charged with prosecuting and/or court marshalling the participants, and those who really were in the country to conduct covert coercion of detainees, a slightly bigger picture develops. What we learn is that some of the rumored atrocities were nothing more than SOP - military slang for ‘standard operating procedure’. While they looked unconscionable, what was depicted was part of a typical war time work method.


That many of these images are excusable is Morris’ first major revelation. The press is branded as premeditated in its automatic denouncement, especially when we learn that some of the stills were staged in order to show brass that action was being taken to retrieve the mandated intelligence. Certainly, not every excuse is plausible, and the frequently featured face of Lynndie England, gaze fixed with a beaming grin and fist constantly poised with a congratulatory “thumbs up” gesture, seems inappropriate for what is happening in the foreground. Yet the ex-soldier, present and accounted for, tries to convince us that her involvement was a matter of juvenile puppy love and personal inexperience.


More times than not, Morris lets his interviewees tap into that ever-popular ‘just following orders’ mantra that means nothing within the concept of human morality and individual ethos. Some literally choke on the words, working them out of their obviously guilty mouths like the bad taste of some long digested disease. At other instances, there is an honesty that ripples across the screen, keeping us from instantly condemning the individual speaking. Sabrina Harman, constantly referenced as the main person responsible for taking the photos, seems stunned that she was even present, her coy on-camera demeanor and telling letters to home (excerpted for voice over narration) suggesting she objected, but also couldn’t contradict a chain of command that ordered prisoners be “softened up” for later interrogation.


Explanation does help here. The sexual nature of the images was a direct response to what the Brass saw as an “Islamic machismo” among the population. As a patently paternalistic society, the emasculating means of mistreated the prisoners had a clear overtone of religious ridicule. Similarly we hear stories of how the detainees threw human waste at their captors and caused violent diversions in hope of escaping. While Standard Operating Procedure barely touches on this, it’s clear that Abu Ghraib had a simultaneous set of problems - those of a typical penitentiary and the addition of a calculated, controlled system of US approved questioning and information extraction. Shockingly, torture is never denied - it’s just argued against within the backdrop of many of the photos.


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. Equally unsettling is the lack of that one element that President George W. Bush and his Texas troubadours always seem to avoid - accountability. Colonel Janis Karpinski, demoted from Brigadier General, sees the tag placed upon her as political retribution for outing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his role in approving such treatment. In the end, we feel shocked and saddened that our nation could fall so far from the tenets of humane treatment simply to strike fear into the hearts of men who may or may not have played a part in any pre or post 9/11 attacks on Americans, both at home and abroad.


While disturbing and quite fascinating, the film itself is not without controversy. In trying to illustrate the various points brought out in the testimony, Morris goes back to his tried and true habit of reenacting the atrocities. While never very graphic in nature, these well-executed scenes seem to be spitting in the face of those who argue that the media, and its manipulation of this material, failed to tell the entire story. And no matter how much truth there is, a lens languishing on a pool of blood or the naked body of a dead prisoner, dramatic lighting and music accenting the horror, does little to support or sidestep their statements.


Morris is also been lambasted for paying the participants of Standard Operating Procedure, a notion that again, seems to defy the aesthetic accepted by documentarians around the world. Of course, the filmmaker’s response is matter of fact - if he didn’t pay them, they wouldn’t participate. Still, there is something unseemly about people desperate to clear their name only doing so if there’s a paycheck involved. Sure, many in the Abu Ghraib case seem to have been scapegoated to save a sagging foreign policy that polarizes everything about the Iraq situation, but true innocence is usually argued openly, and for free. A check at the end feels like truth being bought - or even worse - created for the sake of some coin.


No one is questioning Morris’ motives, and he has been quite vocal in dismissing allegations that he’s avoiding certain elements. In the end, Standard Operating Procedure is about the preparation of a set of charges, and an eventual legal defense, against actions that appear to have way too much of the former and very little of the latter. The labeling of certain images - men posed next to each other in the nude, staged suggestions of fictional torture - as simply part of the process may bring about an uncomfortable chuckle as the classification is explained. But there is little to laugh about in this clear military calamity…and while many were jailed, it will be the American people who pay the price for this blunder. It’s a sentence that will last must longer than any time served, or any contextualized illustration.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

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.


After years pushing papers behind a desk, Maxwell Smart is finally getting a chance to go out into the field. Seems the intelligence organization CONTROL has had its files compromised, and with the face and name of every other operative known, Max is the only one left. He is paired with fatal femme 99, who has just returned from facial reconstruction surgery, and together they investigate whether or not the terrorist organization KAOS is behind all the trouble. Turns out, not only are they out to destroy CONTROL, but the Eastern European leftover is looking to nuke a few friendly countries along the way.


Back in the early ‘80s, Hollywood actually tried to make a Get Smart movie. It was called The Nude Bomb, and it did just that. Even the hit and miss Mr. Brooks disowned it. Now, 28 years later, Tinsel Town is trying again - and this time around, this pointless, action-oriented update could be subtitled “The New Bomb”. Having failed to age gracefully or cleverly, the long standing rivalry between KAOS and CONTROL has been reduced to a series of riffs that have very little to do with spy spoofing, and everything to do with genetically freakish villains and blowing stuff up. Without its numerous nods to every testosterone fueled spectacle that cinema thinks equals excitement, we’d be left with a series of half-baked gags that don’t recall the original’s brilliance as much as dull its timeless shimmer.


As Maxwell Smart, Steve Carrel is no Don Adams, and frankly, this film never needs him to be. Instead of a bumbling boob who constantly seems to stumble his way into winning, this updated spy is just a dorked out spaz. By making Max an accidental know it all, a former analyst whose tireless research and reports actually yield vital counter espionage information, we miss the original’s wacked out whimsy. Sure, there are slapstick moments when our hero hinders his progress by banging into walls and destroying potential evidence, but there’s always a comeback, a moment when Max is pardoned for being a novice, and then celebrated for being right. 


As 99, Hathaway is also hampered with a backstory that does nothing for her character. We are supposed to assume that a simple mistake required this gal’s complete physical changeover, and the moment when she’s outed as almost middle aged rings rather false. Frankly, she’s not even good eye candy, Barbara Feldon fearlessly reflected the pop culture strut of the ‘60s with every move she made. Hathaway appears like a narrative mandate, a underwritten reality existing simply because the old sitcom featured a guy/gal combo as well. Elsewhere, Arkin’s Chief is nothing more than a series of agile old folks gags, while supporting players like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, David Koechner, and Terrance Stamp barely register. And let’s not even mention WWE Wrestler Dalip Singh. He is nothing more than an ethnically diverse Rondo Hatton.


Yet the weakest links in this lightweight loser remain the individuals behind the scenes. Reduced to roles as “consultants”, Brooks and Henry clearly had no involvement here. Even at their weakest, they can dream up better idiocy than this. Instead, the script by Tom Astle and Matt Ember reveals the pairs’ previous stint on the boob tube. Their jokes fall flat because they fail to establish a reason - either individually or situationally - as to why they should work. Even worse, Peter Segal’s hamfisted direction ditches timing (crucial to making a successful comedy) in favor of overdone action scenes and lots of dead air. At any given moment, there are more bullets flying than one-liners…and both tend to miss their mark.


Since the plot is so serious (stealing bombs and nuking LA is not remotely funny in our post-9/11 world) and the pathway there so uninspired, we are left waiting for the laughs. As clues cluster and fall apart, as plot twists turn pointless and perplexing, we wait for the sweet release of humor. As with most of Get Smart, however, we are stuck working for our wit, digging through the endless mugging, the missed line readings, the ridiculous reliance on techno-geek speak (including a cameo by Heroes’ Masi Oka as a CONTROL uber-nerd), and Alan Arkin pratfalling like a Geriatric Lewis. In a current comedy climate where such scant superficiality just won’t cut it, Get Smart is nothing but shallow.


Because it takes no risks, because it refuses to reimagine or deconstruct the original series for anything remotely clever or contemporary, because its cast is given little or nothing to do, Get Smart readily remains generic. It’s a motion picture plebe in a cultural climate that actually embraces such a lack of legitimate talent. Since audiences tend to demand very little of their entertainment, Segal and company can get away with delivering as little as possible. They hope that nostalgia for the past, mixed with the sight of the slightly famous from today, will equal an easy buck. While the dollars won’t be difficult to earn, deserving them remains questionable at best.


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.