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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008

A few weeks ago, a NYT Magazine article prompted me to speculate about the implications of microblogging, but I thought I should at the same time, try to use Twitter in earnest and see what it was really like. At first, I had a really hard time writing anything. I had a strong inclination to lie, basically because I didn’t want to be frank about whatever it was that I was doing. Then it struck me to not mention what I was doing but instead transcribe random half-baked thoughts I may have had and use the space constraint Twitter imposes to transform them into gnomic, oracular pronouncements. This was sort of fun for a few days, and I started to get a sense of what might prompt someone to Twitter obsessively. I started to take my half-assed asides seriously. For the day or two that I was into it, I started living my life in search of snappy sentences, and this seemed like a life being lived poetically for about 24 hours, and then it just seemed totally contrived. But before that, I began to believe that I owed a report on my important thoughts to the world, that it was imperative that I share. I had this notion that people were out there eager to have bite-size pieces of my mind, and I was anxious to be consumed this way, as if my ideas were like those little Halloween candy bars. In other words, Twitter started to stoke my egomania (even more than mere blogging already does).


It may be that I don’t have a robust enough online network, or enough online-offline confluence to make Twitter work as anything other than a chance for me to try to make pithy, oblique observations. I’m not, for example, going to Twitter my whereabouts in the hopes that someone will find me in the real world, and I am not going to Twitter some personal dilemma I’m confronted with and expect someone out there to suggest solutions. And I am not interested in reading anyone else’s Twitters. I have too many blog posts to catch up with as it is, and yes, I know they are short and easily consumable, but it just seemed pointless. I would only be interested in the ones that were cryptic, and then these would take time to decipher that I could be spending reading up on, say, the bailout follies instead.


But the main reason I quit twittering is because it made me feel like a phony; I found myself trying to think of clever ways to describe what I was “doing.” Being honest seemed beside the point, and the more I twittered the less representative my posts were of who I actually think I am, and I started to think that some new dangerous personality I could become was starting to manifest. I didn’t want to get stuck there.


Anyway, I was reminded of this by this recent study about social networking and narcissism, which found “Narcissism predicted (a) higher levels of social activity in the online community and (b) more self-promoting content in several aspects of the social networking Web pages.” The main upshot is that one might be able to indentify narcissists through their online profiles. As one account of the study describes it:


Some researchers in the past have found that personal Web pages are more popular among narcissists, but Campbell said there’s no evidence that Facebook users are more narcissistic than others.
“Nearly all of our students use Facebook, and it seems to be a normal part of people’s social interactions,” Campbell said. “It just turns out that narcissists are using Facebook the same way they use their other relationships – for self promotion with an emphasis on quantity of over quality.”
Still, he points out that because narcissists tend to have more contacts on Facebook, any given Facebook user is likely to have an online friend population with a higher proportion of narcissists than in the real world. Right now it’s too early to predict if or how the norms of online self-promotion will change, Campbell said, since the study of social networking sites is still in its infancy.


I wonder, though, if maintaining online profiles doesn’t foment narcissism. If narcissism is a matter of privileging quantity over quality, then online networks—which are mainly a means of processing friendships more efficiently and with less spontaneity and more command-and-control through personal press releases on profile pages— would seem to provide fertile ground for narcissism to bloom. They encourage us to regard the pseudo-reciprocity of frequent updating for the actual commitments of friendship. This seems like the slippery slope to full-blown self-centeredness, in which sharing oneself seems an acceptable substitution for the ability to listen.


By providing the illusion of a world out there waiting for you to upload new photos and provide an urgent update about what you are doing right this instant, it certainly prompts self-aggrandizement. When I was Twittering, the imagined audience prompted me to post when I had nothing to share and encouraged me to invent something. And sometimes I log on to Facebook and feel jealous of all this activity logged there that my “friends” have been engaged in. I wonder if I just started dumping stuff into my Facebook page, it will make me feel more important, more connected, more interesting. I think that making a broadcast makes me register in some indelible way on the universe, and I suddenly have the moment of illusory control over my own fame, my own significance—and it seems so easy. Just cough up a clever line, or post an ambiguous photo, and just like that, I have (in my own mind, imagining the minds of others) intriguing.


Social networks and microblogging allow us to always have a stage on which to perform our personality successfully, and the allure of making that performance instead of engaging life more directly becomes pretty powerful—spending time thinking about what to Twittter instead of actually doing things that one might report about.


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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008

Beware of Big Brother…blah, blah, blah. You can’t pick up a publication nowadays, or listen to any number of broadcast pundits, and not hear about how the Bush Administration is violating rights and the privilege of privacy for the sake of some metaphoric act of patriotism. Granted, the Constitution may indeed be jeopardized in the name of non-provable levels of safety (call it the “tiger rock” syndrome), but Americans are more than willing to buy into the scheme to avoid another 9/11. This fuels Hollywood’s already perverse sense of paranoia, as it has since Nixon went Watergate-boarding. Disturbia director D. J. Caruso has tapped into such technological fear mongering with his latest big screen suspense thriller, Eagle Eye. While not perfect, if you ignore a major plot twist and/or hole along the way, you’re sure to have an edge of your seat good time.


On the day that he buries his twin brother, Jerry Shaw suddenly finds himself engulfed in a world of trouble. His grubby Chicago apartment is suddenly overrun with terrorism paraphernalia - weapons, instruction manuals, and bomb making materials - and from his cellphone, a mysterious female voice tells him to flee. Before long, Jerry is in FBI custody, with Agent Thomas Morgan on his case. Joined by Air Force investigator Zoe Perez, the officials hope to stop this potential disaster before it occurs.


In the meantime, single mother Rachel Holloman is informed that her son, traveling to Washington DC on a school band trip, is in danger. Unless she agrees to help the mysterious female voice on the other end of the line, she’ll lose everything. Turns out, Jerry is her proposed partner in potential crime. The pair become pawns in what appears to be a deadly assault on the United States. These reluctant radicals have to follow the instructions of their unseen tormentor, or die trying. Of course, the source of the threats might just be someone - or something - inside the government itself.


Bristling along on one amazing narrative convolution after another, and fueled by fascinating gung ho performances from everyone involved, Eagle Eye is a jovial serving of cinematic junk food. It’s frightfully filling without being intellectually challenging, and appears put together by professionals who know a thing or two about maintaining an audience’s interest. For those looking for mandatory movie references, this is nothing more than Wargames, Enemy of the State, North by Northwest and another famous ‘odyssey’ all rolled into one. To reveal the name of the last cinematic masterpiece riffed on would spoil the secret to the film’s villainy. Suffice it to say that any motion picture from the last four decades, especially ones dealing with spying, science gone sinister, and massive governmental conspiracies, finds a hokey, hackneyed home here. Some just overstay their welcome, becoming the storyline’s sole raison d’etra.


As with his homage to Rear Window, director Caruso casts messageboard separator Shia LeBeouf as his everyman, and for someone so hated by a good percentage of geek nation, the actor is very good here. He’s not required to do much - a great deal of this movie is mechanics and manipulations to a deadly denouement - but in the quieter scenes, he shows subtly and nuance. This is not quite the grown-up role the pseudo-star needs - Jerry is still carved out of post-millennial slacker shortcuts - but as the innocent mark turned reluctant hero, he holds things together quite well. Michelle Monaghan is another issue all together. Her overwrought mother is horribly underwritten, complaining about her bastard ex-husband and her lousy paralegal’s paycheck…and that’s about it.


Thankfully, costars Billy Bob Thorton and Rosario Dawson pick up the slack. He’s a manic FBI agent not sure which side of Jerry’s story he believes. She’s the Air Force attaché who uncovers a key piece of evidence explaining the forces behind the threat. One has to say that, if you buy the premise and the antagonist involved, Eagle Eye takes on a sly, almost mischievous sense of social commentary. Positioned directly in the War on Terror times we live in, the film’s obvious jabs at the current White House and the incomplete intelligence that led us to invasion offer waves of wiseass recognition. If anything, Caruso appears to be anarchic in his advocacy. His position gives “We the People” a whole new meaning.


On the small screen, the frenetic action scenes and hand-held hysterics would clearly get lost. The editing typically takes a mashed up moment and amplifies it unnecessarily. But blown up 70mm on an IMAX screen, Eagle Eye becomes a crackerjack nailbiter. The car chases have a real logic and flow, and the foot races reveal both clever choreography and a true sense of space. Chicago looks luminous during the various aerial shots, and when CG takes over to establish the “omnipresence” of the Federal bureaus, the graphics look great. Like Beowulf inside the 3D domain, Eagle Eye needs to be experienced in the larger theatrical format. The detail in the image helps make up for some of the tried and true tricks the director uses to create breakneck cinematic chaos.


Even with its occasional lapses into illogical miscalculation (like the ability to control elements like electrical lines???), Eagle Eye is a great, goofball thrill. It’s the kind of film you can get lost in, forgetting the fallacies streaming across your subconscious as you sit back and savor another sequence of veiled threat and vehicular mayhem. Certainly, the story is not meant to mean more than the basics of the genre, and any references to masters past remain securely on the side of the alluded to auteurs. But D. J. Caruso and Shia LeBeouf prove a potent combination, especially in the realm of easy to swallow suspense films. If you go in expecting The Conversation meshed with a sideways Manchurian Candidate, you’ll be easily underwhelmed. But not every entertainment needs to engage the brain to guarantee success. Check your head at the ticket counter and you’ll enjoy this wickedly wild ride - especially in IMAX.


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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008
Words and Pictures by Kirstie Shanley.

Between bursts of spontaneous dancing and iconic poses, James’ frontman Tim Booth has the charisma and charm to make any set enjoyable. (He’s also the only lead singer I know that can pull off an outfit consisting of a suit jacket and pajama bottoms.) Along with his soaring vocals and spirited camaraderie, Booth is also able to inspire a fully adoring audience.


Playing a sold out show in support of their new album, Hey Ma, James could have very easily crafted a setlist from recent material. Instead, the band chose a well-rounded set of songs with a handful of favorites that only served to increase the audience fervor. Coming to the foot of the stage during “Out to Get You”, Booth let the many hands hold his legs and feet while he sang as if only to a few of us.


The band, which first formed in Manchester, England, in the early ‘80s, received standing ovations for many of their hits including, “Say Something”, “Sit Down”, “Top of the World”, and “Sometimes”. The only missing songs were the stellar tracks found on the brilliant Brian Eno produced Millioniares, which may have been left out due to the album’s unavailability in the States when it was released in 1999.


While James, as a band, deserves all the acclaim it gets, it’s clear that Tim Booth, who has an innate ability to balance pop songs with soft intimate lullabies, is the star of the show. Adept at creating choruses that people appear to instantly remember, he’s also a master at touching the very heart of the matters he speaks of. The audience members made this show a shared experience, singing along to many of the songs without any prompting. It was as if it was impossible not to sing along, even when the lyrics might sound sappy to an outsider as with fan favorite “Sometimes”. As Tim Booth sings, “Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul,” you can’t help but feel the sense of how heartfelt his words are. It seems that when Tim Booth sings something, it just ends up feeling right.


 


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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008

“Chains” marks the first time on Please Please Me where the Beatles sound indifferent to the material they’re playing. Their version of the Gerry Goffin and Carole King-penned R&B ditty is flat, repetitious (seemingly more so than the original, somehow), and musically underdressed. The harmonies are rather staid and none of the Beatles seem to find anything inventive to try instrumentally (though the harmonica-led intro is notable as it would reappear, often memorably, in a considerable amount of their songs).


To hear the earlier, Cookies-performed rendition is to realize that “Chains” is an R&B number through and through and perhaps not ideally suited to the Fab Four’s abilities. In translating it to rock ‘n roll, the Beatles opted to shed the original’s sax drop-ins and handclaps (but why), thereby losing much of its color and looseness. It just doesn’t take flight on the strength alone of their guitar-bass-percussion interplay. And John and Paul’s vocals come off almost stodgy when compared to the bright, lively chirp of the Cookies. The Beatles, it seems, simply didn’t know where to take the song.

The structure of “Chains”, which remains constant between the two versions, does contain a feature worthy of mention. It’s how the chorus introduces the song and then essentially continues through the space where you’d expect there to be a proper, set-apart verse (several bridge-like, modified verses do arrive later). The chorus and standard verse seem, more or less, merged into one, which facilitates a smooth flow but can also be repetitious.


It’s only a detail of minor interest and doesn’t have any bearing on how effective “Chains” is in the hands of either band. The Cookies’ version really is a blithe confection while the Beatles’ uninspired interpretation serves as a reminder (among others to come) that the future greatest-ever pop band didn’t immediately achieve artistic eminence. They first had to test their evolving skills against the vast and newfangled possibilities of rock ’n’ roll.


Tagged as: the beatles
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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008

Unless our own troops are involved (or in rare cases, our vital national interest), Americans don’t really care about wars abroad. Whether its ancestral hatred, religious difference, or the standard struggle for power, if the effects don’t reach our shores, we offer only a passing interest. Of course, the minute crimes are committed in the name of such insurgence, we perk up. Add children to the mix and the basic biological uproar occurs. Yet in many African countries, old tribal disputes and ethnic unrest have a permanent place in history. That anything remotely normal occurs in this life during wartime is a miracle. That we in the West pay attention to it is even more improbable.


For years now, Uganda has been at war with rebel forces bent on seizing control, one tribe at a time. In the case of the Acholis in the Northern part of the country, the attacks have been particularly brutal. Children have witnessed the death of their parents, themselves barely escaping with their lives. Many wind up in the bush - tired, hungry, and afraid. Eventually, they become refugees and join the millions sequestered in government sponsored camps. At Patonga, we meet three impressive young people. Nancy watches over her siblings while her mother moves from location to location, looking for work. Dominic fancies himself a superstar musician. His skill at the xylophone covers up a deep, dark secret. And Beth is an indentured servant to her cruel and callous aunt. Like Cinderella without an invitation to the ball, her days AND nights are filled with mindless and menial chores.


But when it comes to singing, dancing, and playing traditional and Western songs, these children are very special indeed. The Patonga School has just won an invitation to the prestigious National Music Competition in Kampala, and in Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s fascinating War/Dance, a camera crew follows their meticulous preparations. Along with several dozen students of various ages, these teenagers spend countless hours training for the contest. During their brief downtime, they play, worry, dream, and try to forget the raging horrors all around them. Following their progress for three months, the filmmakers provide insight into the Acholi’s desperate situation. They also reveal how genocide and gang mentalities have caused widespread slaughter and the ever-present stench of human atrocity.


While it may sound scripted, each subject has an unsettling story to tell. Nancy outlines how her mother had to bury the vivisected body parts of her cruelly killed father. She also cuts a concerning figure as she stands in line with older, angrier exiles waiting for the UN to pass out their pathetic rations. Beth is so berated, so oppressed and ostracized that no one will help her pack when she prepares to compete. Of the three, Dominic remains the most optimistic and memorable. Briefly held as a prisoner/subscription soldier by the rebels, he tells of a brother’s bravery (which may have cost his life) and the day he was told to beat a farmer to death. In calm, considered tones, he confesses his crime. The Fines are not out to defend or condemn these kids. Instead, we are witness to a literal loss of innocence, youth snatched away by equally young men who play the “only following orders” card when confronted.


Indeed, one of War/Dance‘s best sequences is when Dominic heads to the local military base to question a captured insurgent. Defiant at first, but slowly opening up, the former “freedom fighter” takes the ‘done by directive’ stance. When challenged, he admits that what he did was wrong - with an explanation. Apparently, killing whole villages and kidnapping their children is a means of winning respect and gaining authority. The more hostages you have, in conjunction with the number of notches on your belt, brings a certain level of admiration within the rebel set. Luckily, the Fines don’t dawdle on this material. The prisoner could pontificate for days and we would still have a hard time fathoming his death and destruction explanations.


No, our story settles for the standard last act contest, with our outright underdogs (Patonga has never made it to the Nationals before, and the prejudice among people outside the North has practically guaranteed them a last place humiliation) taking on the city slicking favorites from years past. If it wasn’t caught on tape as it happened, you’d swear it was the contrivance of some Hollywood scriptwriter. With their coaches watching on, and the specious looks from the spectators foreshadowing a sense of doom, our team truly rises to the occasion. Though we don’t see the other schools in action, Patonga delivers in both its Western and Original Composition rounds. We even think that they might be able to pull off an upset. But when they totally destroy the defending champions during the Tribal Dance sequence (their choice - the Bwola), we’re convinced they will win.


The wrap up is as unpredictable as it is emotional. Before the trophies are handed out, the kids get a trip around Kampala, and to see their reactions to things like TVs, airplanes, and food stalls is astounding. For a brief, shining moment, they are children again, existing within the kind of idyllic, carefree childhood that everyone in the West takes for granted. By the time they return to the camp, conquering heroes or not, our perspective of the situation has shifted radically. War/Dance suggests that talent can overcome even the greatest of tragedies. All one has to do is receive vindication for their attempts, and a whole new outlook blossoms. As the credits roll, the Fines update us on all three kids. There are no last minute twists, no ‘should have seen its coming’ dates with destiny. Instead, we discover how important the competition really was. Beside the challenge, it changed these kids in profound ways.


There will be those who see the slick cinematography, the subjects staged like models making a very special Benetton ad, and cry foul. And when we see the Africa skyline shimmer with cobalt blue rainclouds, thunder and lightning acting as a Greek Chorus for what is to follow, the Fines could be accused of mild mannered manipulation. But when your story is as sound as this one, when the subjects have been through the kind of Hell described, a little coaching can be tolerated. After all, War/Dance couldn’t save these kids if they had to. This is the real world, one ruled by ridiculous tribal jealousies, the same petty power struggles, and the mass murder that tends to occur when the other two elements are present. It’s almost impossible not to appreciate what the film accomplishes. Maybe this will be the wake up call the West needs. Or maybe not.


War/Dance is distributed by Shine Global. Their official website is: www.shineglobal.org . The DVD can be purchased from this website.


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