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

 
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Saturday, May 8, 2010
A look at five recent Blu-ray releases: It's Complicated, The Jackal, Leap Year, Traffic, and Out of Africa

The high definition home video technology known as Blu-ray is in an unusual place in 2010. Unlike laserdisc, which failed to fulfill the promise of its expanded aesthetic discussion and preservationist intent (cost kept it from dethroning crappier, more commercial king VHS), it has held steady with its digital sidekick, DVD. There have even been cases when specific titles (The Dark Knight, Avatar) clearly outsell - and outclass - their non-Blu brethren and with 3D advancements looking to make their mark, the format is in a very strange holding pattern. Almost all swear by its improved sound and vision, but some studios aren’t willing to invest in the labor-intensive remastering of their movies (which kind of defeats the purpose). So they simply toss out the previous incarnation of a film and hope that the majority of the buyers pay little or no attention to the lack of an update. Most don’t.


There are some studios who are trying to keep everyone happy. Disney regularly releases its latest animated efforts in complex combination packages that give both Blu-ray and DVD aficionados something to crow about, and Warner Brothers began a program where you can take your old out of date discs and port them over to the new technology. Universal is even testing the double format idea, releasing a bunch of notable efforts via an intriguing two-side ideal. Again, if the image is not improved and the extras aren’t plentiful, there’s really no reason for the re-release. Still, looking over the five titles featured in this initial installment of our semi-regular Blu-ray overview, you can see that some distributors are trying their best to buoy sales and maintain a level of consumer confidence. On the other hand, they have to deal with the often uneventful movies as part of the presentation.  Let’s begin with:


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Saturday, Apr 3, 2010

It’s not the most visualized holiday in the motion picture canon. Perhaps it has something to do with the bifurcated nature of the celebration. On the one hand, you’ve got the solemn grace of the Christian conceit, a moving proclamation of faith and forgiveness as best illustrated by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then, for some perfectly pagan reason, this honorarium for the dead turned into a brightly colored pastel puke fest, as baskets laden with all manner of glucose grotesqueries became the annual endowment to dentists and dieticians everywhere. Even worse, the King of Kings was cast aside for some oversized animal with a tendency toward rapid preproduction and raisin pellet feces. Trying to explain this all to an impressionable youth has got to be one of the greatest challenges in all of parenting. No wonder they saddle their bratlings with all kinds of caffeine and caramels instead.


Hollywood’s been no help. They’ve treated Easter like a leper in the motion picture punchbowl, sticking with either the saintly (The Robe) or the silly (Easter Parade) to illustrate their interest. Of course, kids catch the brunt of it, with all manner of egg and eye candy creations used to keep their attention off the obvious death and dying subtext. Between standard animated offal (It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown) and the unusual ersatz religious revamps (the Veggies Tales take on Dickens called An Easter Carol) it’s no wonder children choke down sweets. But here’s a way of avoiding all this conceptual contradiction. As part of our cinematic service to the planet’s populace, SE&L suggests tossing out the typical and trying a few new entertainment entries this holiday. While they probably won’t fill you with much spring spirit, they will definitely make the time period more tolerable. Divided into the recognizable symbols of the season, let’s begin with:


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Wednesday, Feb 4, 2009

She only appears in the last 15 minutes of the film. Her presence is, at first, rather disorienting, since we’ve seen so few adults during the course of the carnage. As she tries to comfort a distraught and very upset Alice, her almost blasé response to the concept of a killer on the loose makes her instantly suspect. Still, we’re willing to go with this well-meaning matriarch, at least, up to a point. And then Betsy Palmer, TV star from decades past, opens up her predatory pearly whites and starts telling the story of a boy…a boy named Jason, and soon we see the light. As the mother of the drowned lad, Mrs. Voorhees means business, and in her line of work (carving up teenagers), business is booming.


As Friday the 13th prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary (a new unrated DVD has just been released), and with renewed interest in the franchise sparking via a brand new up to date remake, it’s important to look back on the villain who really started it all. No, not that fame whoring lummox named Jason. He took over the splatter mantle when Mommy bought the farm near the end of the original film. No, the real badass of the entire F13 series is the unhinged lady who started it all. As Camp Crystal Lake’s cook back in the ‘50s, Mrs. Voorhees knew her handicapped son needed constant minding. When counselors decided to have sex instead, his death helped her maternal instincts go ballistic.


The entire premise of the first Friday the 13th film is the notion of hedonistic teens paying for their self-indulgent ways. When Steve Christy vows to reopen the failing family business (the camp has had more than its fair share of bad luck in the years proceeding Mrs. Voorhees first spree), he hires a bunch of pot smoking, bed hopping, beer swilling young people to help handle the proposed influx of kids. They are to spend two weeks getting the place in shape before they see the first paying customer. Ironically enough, new cook Annie is picked up hitchhiking, and in a very dramatic and suspenseful scene, has her throat cut while running through the woods.


Thus begins the body count, what all entries in the Friday the 13th franchise are noted for. During the course of this first installment, we get arrows through the throat, axes to the face, knives to the gut, and in perhaps the movie’s most memorable kill, a full blown machete to the head decapitation. It is Mrs. Voorhees who suffers said final humiliation, loosing her noggin after a knockdown drag out lakeside rumble with Alice. The two square-off in typical talking baddie/last girl fashion but what makes the entire scuffle work is the sight of Palmer, well into her 50s by this time, smacking the bejesus out of her costar…and smiling that old school Tinsel Town grin all the while.


Starting around the same time as TV came into its own, Patricia Betsy Hrunek made a name for herself in such popular broadcast fare as the Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. She also had small but important roles in films like Mr. Roberts and The Last Angry Man. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, she found work on game shows like I’ve Got a Secret. However, her most famous turn may have been as a reporter/personality for then fledgling morning show Today. Along with commercials, talk show appearances, and occasional returns to the stage, Palmer eked out a decent if indefinite career. She was a face you recognized, but you weren’t quite sure about the where and when.


Rumor has it that, desperate for a new car (and the cash to buy same), Ms. Palmer took the role in Friday the 13th, even though she considered the script a “piece of shit”. Receiving $1000 a day for a total of 10 days work, she collected her check and tried to forget her foray into fright. But her performance was so memorable, and the impact of the slasher standard so immediate, that it wasn’t long before Mrs. Voorhees became a true blue arterial spray icon. Thanks to the hulking mutant with a mashed up face and a bullish bad attitude, the woman who gave birth to a thousand slice and dice nightmares instantly begat an entire motherly mythos.


And with good reason. Palmer is electric in the original Friday the 13th, an old ham really bringing home the bacon with her unsane showboating as the marauding madam. With eyes suggestively sparkling with glints of gratuitous hate, and choppers that would make a Great White envious, she doesn’t just chew up the scenery - she takes huge, heaping helpings of backdrop and grinds them up like little children’s hearts. Her Mrs. Voorhees is unstoppable, unconquerable, and unfathomable. Sure, seeing your son die would drive any mother over the edge. But to grab a hatchet and start swinging requires a madness that not even Charlie Manson could manage in a lifetime of incoherent inner monologues.


But Mrs. Voorhees has it all figured out. Her son died at the hands of randy adolescents who couldn’t keep their Eisenhower era hands off each other, so she is going to make sure that generations of the same suffer a similar fatalistic fate. But does this really make her the ultimate horror movie badass? Does her unrepentant desire to kill off anyone associated with Camp Crystal Lake really make her the definitive illustration of wrath unraveled and visceral? The answer, oddly enough, is Hell mofo-ing YES!!! While other killers get to hide behind masks (hockey, Halloween, or otherwise), or go about their gory commerce in Darth Vader like gasps, Palmer puts on a primer for going full blown psycho and never ever stops. She’s committed while needing to be. She’s scary without losing total touch with her aims. And until Alice removes her cranium from her collar, she’s damn successfully at the fine art of splatter.


Like any legitimate legend, Mrs. Voorhees doesn’t overstay her welcome. She battles mightily, takes her machete medicine, and dies like any badass should - directly in the line of sight of her oversized ogre of an undead child. As pure evil, as the Wicked Witch of the West meshed with a spinster aunt whose long since lost her marbles, as the unquestioned inspiration for every slasher film fiend to come afterwards, Betsy Palmer’s work in the original Friday the 13th is greatness personified. While she may not like the terror tag (though she’s recently relented and started attending conventions) and thinks the entire experience was a ‘waste of time and talent’, there’s no denying the impact of her performance. Almost three decades later we’re still talking about PAMELA Voorhees, the devoted parent who took her unquestionable grief a few slaughter-filled steps too far. It’s because of Betsy Palmer that we still cringe…and care.


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Tuesday, Nov 11, 2008

It often seems like India makes more movies than any other country.  Though many are made at the low-cost, formulaic, “flash-and-bang” manner of the Bollywood style, once in a while a film comes out of India that deserves recognition from critics, aficionados, and audiences who appreciate graceful, deliberate storytelling.  The visual beauty and scenarios of Jules and Jim, The Seventh Seal, and 8 1/2, the masterpieces of 20th century European cinema, have counterparts in India in the films of Satyajit Ray, Rithik Ghatak, Guru Dutt, and Shyam Benegal. Rituparno Ghosh, a young director from Kolkata, is the creative successor to these great directors, and Chokher Bali, is a lyrical example of his craft and his obsession with one of India’s disgraceful injustices - its religious and cultural subordination of women. 


Drawing inspiration from a novel by renowned late 19th century Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, Ghosh sets the stage for a period film that examines the slow, insidious way in which a woman’s subjugation at the hands of wealthy acquaintances is transformed into a calculated plan of revenge, vindictiveness, and sexual gratification.


In 1890s British Calcutta, 18 year-old Binodini’s parents send her photograph (a painstaking and expensive procedure in those days, for a financially-strapped middle-class Indian family) to two potential bridegrooms, both wealthy and from prominent families, the sensual and indolent Mahendra (Prosenjit) and the bookish Behari (Tota Raychoudhouri). Both men, fancy themselves as modern, and dislike the idea of an arranged marriage.  They reject the proposal without even looking at the photograph. Humiliated, Binodini’s parents marry her off to the first willing man, a landowner in the village who promptly dies of tuberculosis, leaving the unlucky young woman a widow.

For those familiar with Hindu rituals and customs, or with Deepa Mehta’s haunting film, Water (2006), Hindu widows lead a life of ascetic self-denial.  They must wear white saris at all times, they cannot wear jewelry, they are not allowed meat or fish, and live out other such rituals to purify themselves through a lifetime of bereavement. To anyone not Indian, though, it seems as if they are being punished for outliving their husbands. This is the life Binodini is doomed to lead in her husband’s village home, until some family friends take pity and invite her to live with them in Kolkata as a glorified servant.  However, as it happens, she stays with Mahendra’s family, the very same man who callously rejected her and led her to her disastrous marriage.  Revenge is exacted, slowly and patiently.



Aishwariya Rai, India’s most well-known actress, plays Binodini, her first cerebral role.  Through Ghosh’s direction, she gives a blessedly restrained performance that balances girlish submissiveness with coy sensuality. Underneath the doe-eyed charm, Binodini is simmering with rage and her gestures and casual conversations reveal bit-by-bit her plot to destroy the domestic tranquility of the complacently wealthy family families who rejected her. 


There’s a marvelous scene where Mahendra’s pretty young wife Ashalata (Raima Sen), naively takes the poor widow on as her confidante and lets her try on her wedding jewelry, heavy gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings and all.  Binodini didn’t even have such fine ornaments at her own wedding, and her ecstasy at wearing these jewels can’t be contained: she dances and sings in front of the mirror, like a knowing courtesan, while Mahendra and Behari watch, rapt with lust, from behind the bedroom door.  Whether Binodini realizes the men are there, or is unaware, is left a bit ambiguous. But the ensuing manipulation, seduction, and quiet devastation affords grim satisfaction for Binodini, who is forbidden to remarry, bear children, and lead a life of normalcy.



The evocative title of the story alludes to the discomfort caused by something sudden and seemingly simple, like getting a grain of sand stuck in your eye, which once caught, can be excruciatingly painful, and even blinding. So is the grain of sand, Binodini, who wreaks havoc on the domestic bliss of Mahendra’s family, or is Binodini a blameless young woman whose opportunities for happiness were denied to her by the vagaries of fate and society? Like well-made films that center on complicated, compelling characters, Chokher Bali simply presents the story and allows the audience to decide what to make of it all. Anyone who wants to get a glimpse of what’s best in Indian art house cinema, must see this movie, taking it in as you would finely crafted short story.


 


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Thursday, Oct 30, 2008

If it’s October, it’s Fright Time here at SE&L. As we have the last two years, we will use the tenth month of the year to celebrate all things horror - the good, the bad, and the gory. In between our standard Friday film reviews and occasional mainstream DVD release, we will look at 20 scary movies that may (or may not) be worth your attention. By checking back here regularly, you will see the titles covered, and find links to the opinions provided. Hopefully, we will uncover some gems among the junk. Enjoy!


On DVD - Feast II: Sloppy Seconds (2008)
On DVD - Phantasm (1979) 
On DVD - The Toolbox Murders (1978)
On DVD - Evilspeak (1981)
On DVD - Pieces (1982)
On DVD - Pieces (1982) - Version 2.0
On DVD - Bad Taste (1987)
On DVD - Mad Monster Party? (1969)
On DVD - The Last Broadcast (1998)
On DVD - The Beyond (1981)
On DVD - Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2007)
On DVD - Ils (2006)
On DVD - Ganja & Hess (1973)
On DVD - Inside (2007)



Mil Mascaras: Resurrection (2005)
Midnight Meat Train (2008)
Haunted Hay Ride (2008)
Mirrors (2008)
[REC] (2008)

The Cottage (2008) - Coming Soon


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