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by David Pullar

19 Mar 2009

Enthusiasm is an excellent quality to find in a non-fiction writer.  So many books are either drily specialised or glib and workmanlike.  It’s a real pleasure to read a book and feel that the writer is discovering facts mere minutes before you, relating them in real time with all the passion of new knowledge.

If nothing else, Australian writer Gideon Haigh is an enthusiast.  His journalistic background means that he’s used to flipping from one topic to another and acquiring knowledge on the fly.  If he has an area of specialisation, it’s cricket, about which he has written over a dozen works.  But he also writes widely on business and social issues, working as a well-informed amateur.

Watching him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2008 was a revelation.  At several points in a panel discussion, he completely abandoned answering questions on his previous book (Asbestos House)to read large selections of court transcript from a forthcoming work on abortion.  It was entertaining to watch someone become completely caught up in a topic.  There’s only one way to describe it: Haigh was geeking out.

The book in question, The Racket: How Abortion Became Legal In Australia (Melbourne University Press), was released toward the end of last year and it’s mostly a continuation of Haigh’s festival geek-out.  The list of sources and information at the end of the book is prodigious and Haigh seems determined to use every single detail he has found.  Reading it, you experience the same feeling as watching Haigh speak—a writer joyously throwing out facts to the audience.

The Racket details the web of corruption and crime connected to the underground abortion trade and how a range of activists, politicians and doctors eventually saw it dismantled and abortion legalised.  Using transcripts from abortion trials, memoirs and first-hand testimony, Haigh manages to assemble a comprehensive picture of how events unfolded.

At less than 300 pages, the barrage of information and anecdote can be a bit overwhelming and it’s easy to lose track of the colourful characters that made up Melbourne’s abortion trade in the 1950s and 60s.  Haigh’s sources are incredible and he is able to recreate the era and the events with remarkable complexity, if not as much clarity.  He seems intoxicated by his findings and it mostly rubs off on the reader.

For such a grim and confronting topic, Haigh’s light touch is welcome.  While the details are often difficult to stomach, the amusing digressions and sub-plots ease the difficulty.

While imperfect and a little overstuffed, The Racket is a fascinating insight into another world—and the highly active mind of an exceptional journalist.

by Bill Gibron

18 Mar 2009

As we’ve stated before (yes, we know you’re sick of it by now) action and horror get a bum rap, mostly for some very wrong, very narrow-minded reasons. Like a gut-busting comedy, critics like to believe that both are dead easy. They also believe they have been rendered unexceptional, by filmmakers who don’t really give a damn, or actually don’t know how to. They point to the endless string of shoddy productions, mangy motion pictures that put the last two words in that phrase up for debate and make their asinine assertion. The truth is, terror and thrills are perhaps the most difficult cinematic responses to come by, and that’s because, like humor what scares someone or pushes them right to the edge of their seat is a completely personal and subjective ideal. What horrifies one might make another laugh, and visa versa. Still, the studios keep trying, and by doing so, fulfill the pundit’s prophecy in ways only a cash hungry conglomerate can achieve. Desperate to keep their moneymaker in the public eye, they will literally do anything to drum up publicity.

Perhaps this explains the exploding editorial mailbox recently. As these films come and go from the Cineplex at an alarming speedy pace, SE&L and Surround Sound have been inundated with soundtracks - lots and lots of soundtracks. In the last few weeks alone we’ve received over 20, and many of them have been for efforts that were marginal media sensations at best. One has to wonder what studios see in releasing the scores for such sonic non-issues as The Unborn, The Uninvited, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (not once, but in two DIFFERENT versions). Sure, last installment’s Watchmen double hit made sense since Warners clearly thought it had a mega-hit on its hands. Now, with the Zack Synder triumph underperforming, it’s clear that contractual obligations, not a realistic view on a soundtrack’s substantive qualities, dictate the pressing of a promotional disc. And such legalese is clearly the case here. There is no other reason these marginal musical offerings should see the CD light of day, beginning with: 

The Unborn - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

Some ideas seem stupid from the get go. Others take their time in revealing their ridiculousness. For writer/director David S. Goyer, there seems to be a clear distinction between the merely banal and completely braindead. As a scribe, he’s lucked into some decent affairs (Dark City, Batman Begins, Blade II). As a director, he’s helmed some of the worst hackneyed garbage this side of a Charles Band production (oddly enough, Goyer worked for the schlockmeister during the ‘80s). Zigzag was tired, Blade III literally killed off the franchise, and The Invisible was like Ferris Bueller’s Unfunny Undead Day Off. Still, trailers for the recent The Unborn seemed to indicate a change in Goyer’s filmmaking fortunes. Part Jacob’s Ladder, part demon child spine tingler, it took the promise of a tired premise (the evil unborn twin) and tweaked it for a CG-13 demo. Sadly, the results only reaffirmed the man’s well-meaning mediocrity. Even with a star studded cast, Goyer just couldn’t get his gruesome groove on. The score for The Unborn indicates the hopeless hit or miss reasons why.

It all begins with a very X-Files-like title track, a bunch of odd electronic beats providing the backdrop to a combination of synthesizer squawks and symphonic cues. As the tune moves along on a set of staccato melody mounds, we’re not sure if we’re in for a fright flick, or a potboiling political thriller. Luckily, the next three tracks - “The Glove, “Jumby Wants to Be Born Now”, and “Twins” take us where we need to go. Composer Ramin Djawadi’s modus operandi seems to be a combination of the lax and the overly loud. Tracks like “Possessed” will start out with slow, subtle signatures only to explode near the end with abrasive, abrupt orchestrations. There’s lots of nods to the composer’s broadcast past (Djawadi is responsible for scoring the entire run of FOX’s Prison Break), and you can even hear a bit of Batman Begins and Pirates of the Caribbean in the mix (the man was responsible for additional music for both films, among others). By “Bug” we anticipate the tracks overwhelming cacophony of atonal terrors. But then The Unborn slips back into sinister lullaby mode, mixing small note piano lines with eerie sonic washes. Still, “Sefer Ha-Morot” is wild enough to wake-up even the drowsiest dread denizen - and not necessarily in a good way.

The Uninvited - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]

Critics love to complain that horror films are formulaic and derivative. If you’ve seen one, you’ve basically seen them all. That makes a fright flick remake doubly desperate. Not only is it representative of an already stereotyped genre, but it’s repeating an idea already done - and typically, a lot better. Still, when it was announced that American fans would finally see a Western take on the unfathomably popular Korean chiller A Tale of Two Sister (good, but not as great as some have indicated) there was reason to be both wildly excited and wary - especially with the Guard Brothers behind the lens. Sadly, the movie didn’t make much of an impression on reviewers or the audience. While it had the standard strong opening weekend, it soon faded off the cultural landscape to make way for more terror tales like remakes of Friday the 13th and The Last House on the Left. For composer Christopher Young, the lack of success is not that unusual. As the musician responsible for the sonic backdrop to solid shivers like Hellraiser, Species, and The Grudge, he can only be responsible for the aural aspects of fear. Unfortunately, he’s hooked up with some really subpar cinematics - especially this time around.

From the very beginning, Young seems lost in a homage-heavy backdrop. There are hints at his previous stints with the Cenobites, references to Stanley Kubrick and his ethereal 2001 score, as well as the typical electronic throb one associates with John Carpenter. Soon, the entire soundtrack has a thematic clarity that clashes with these recognizable references. Young is obviously going for the small and simple juxtaposed against the symphonic in scope. The title track is all low whispers and single key strokes. By the time we get to “Christmas Corpse”, the obvious elements are in place - banshee like female trills, single instrument droning, the regular chug of a sparse orchestra. In between, “Twice Told Tales” has a nice piano clarity, and “Terror on the Water” is big and brash with lots of ambience. Still, if there is one thing you can count in with a horror film, it’s derivativeness, and Young’s work here definitely fits that pattern. The Uninvited may have been a cinematic disappointment for the scary movie maven. The score does little to bring anything new or novel to the mix.

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 3]

Of all the videogame titles sitting out there waiting for a big screen adaptation, bringing back a beloved golden oldie from the early ‘90s seems foolhardy, especially when the mortal combat console effort was already the subject of one shoddy film. Yet the producers of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li must have felt strongly enough about the material to give the failed franchise a second chance. Without Jean-Claude Van Damme and the late Raul Julia around to mess things up, director Andrzej Bartkowiak (Romeo Must Die, Doom) had a chance to make his own mark on the material. Sadly, the film underperformed so badly that many in the demo didn’t even know that there was a new Street Fighter movie in theaters (it’s still playing in some markets, believe it or not). Of course, once you hear the tired soundtrack submitted by Stephen Endelman, all questions about this offering’s inefficiency are easily answered. If the film is anything like the strangled, stunted score, a series of skyscraper like banners couldn’t earn the fanbase’s attention - or appreciation.

Endelman, who actually received a Grammy nomination for his work on 2004’s De-Lovely, is what you would call a film industry fringe dweller. He’s been involved in numerous projects, both noted (Flirting with Disaster) and nominal (Phat Girlz), but nothing that would distinguish him from a dozen similar soundtrack composers. His work on Street Fighter feels like a marginal movie fan’s idea of what a Hong Kong martial arts epic would sound like. There’s lots of rhythmic drumbeats and random bell noises. The orchestra wanders around the tribal tones, offering recognizable riffs before switching over into boring, bombastic mode. We are supposed to see our heroes in flashy fisticuffs while “Chun-Li vs. Bison” and “Bathroom Fight” careen out of control. But Endelman also wants to go for the emotional, with tracks like “The Montage” and “Reunited with Father” failing to provide much of said sentiment. With the howling hip-hop happenstance of “Arriving in Bangkok” (the city should sue), and slinky salsa like stumbles of “Following Balrog”, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is all over the map. The only locale it doesn’t locate is somewhere memorable.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - Original Score [rating: 5]

Here’s an interesting question - how does a composer compete with a studio set on making their latest movie a backdrop for a bunch of unsigned indie idols? Put another way, does someone like Paul Haslinger, a musician responsible for b-movie bedlam in such titles as Death Race, Crank, and the stellar Shoot ‘Em Up (he was also a member of seminal synth act Tangerine Dream from 1986 to 1990) really mind that his score comes second to a bunch of nu-metal nonsense. A few weeks back, Surround Sound took on the pop hit oriented version of the Underworld 3 marketing machine, and were not too impressed. The remix heavy hackwork, replete with bands whose names read like discontinued titles in the Anton LeVay Self-Help Collection, was definitely not worth remembering. It would be nice to say that Mr. Haslinger redeems the project by bringing his classically trained musicianship to what is basically a horror film with outsized action epic pretensions. Unfortunately, except for a track here and there, this score is as silly and near irredeemable as the movie it is meant to supplement.

Granted, there are times when Haslinger gets its right. “The Most Precious Thing to My Heart” has a wonderfully evocative ambient quality, and “Court Battle Suite” is as sonically silly and over the top as it sounds. It’s also a gratuitous guilty listening pleasure. But for the most part, Rise of the Lycans believes in that “blast, and then boredom” ideal that is supposed to invoke movement and power and yet ends up sounding like someone fell asleep on the ‘volume’ switch. Tracks like “The Arrow Attack”, “The Wolves Den”, and “Storming the Castle” all huff and puff like a formerly retired stuntman, while others meander around in a haze of half-realized electronic drones. Haslinger does indeed evoke emotion and mood with his work. We can sense the menace throughout. But there is so little actual melody here, no matter if it’s buried in “Lucian and Sonja’s Love Theme” or “Sonja’s Trial and Execution” (talk about spoilers!) that it’s hard to appreciate the effort. Only the last piece, a remix of the title track, does anything truly interesting or involving with the material. Oddly enough, it accomplishes this by taking Haslinger’s bravado down several sizable notches.

by Terry Sawyer

18 Mar 2009

I admire the documentarian with the light touch. In fact, with Crude Independence, I was expecting something along the lines of King Corn, where two college kids begin with a blood test and end up creating a documentary about the dehumanization of massive agribusiness. They built the story from the ground up, never condescending to their subjects and never using the power of the filmmaker to project intentions, ill or otherwise. But Crude Independence has virtually no touch at all, which ends up leaving it in the awkward position of seeming to advocate rather simplistic solutions to the complex issues involved in global energy policy. Sometimes poorly executed objectivity can lead to clumsily unintentional propaganda.

Crude Independence roughly traces the impact of the discovery of a huge shale oil deposition in the tiny North Dakotan village of Stanley. It’s these interviews where a judicious nudge would made the movie much more bearable: The townspeople discuss the impact in terms of the influx of roughnecks, sudden wealth, and the uneasiness of having financial security that rests on an industry notorious for boom-and-bust cycles and the economic wasteland left in their wake. But the conversations ramble interminably, rarely shedding insight upon anything other than small town life is really boring; so boring that the most interesting story in the film is told by a teenager who claims to have seen an extra-terrestrial in her boyfriend’s car. It quickly becomes one of the world’s most tedious Chamber of Commerce videos ever made. The roughneck segments meant to explain the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day life of their jobs falter because they’re wasted, shouting over one another and in the state of “I love you/I hate you” drunkenness. They make no sense and sound like raging idiots. While Noah Hutton’s long rambling tours through the town’s past give some sense of something somewhere having been lost; the viewer is certainly not compelled to play Mad Libs with the director. Is this industry destroying this town? Are small towns only transiently productive and possibly obsolete as permanent communities? I’m not offering a point of view, simply suggesting that there’s ton of material to work with here.

A group of roughnecks at a local bar

A group of roughnecks at a local bar

Only the segments in the county clerk’s office offer some of the meatier segments by explaining the difference between owning land and owning the mineral rights. Apparently, if you don’t own the mineral rights, a company can buy them, put an oil rig on your land, and decide what to offer you for the destruction of your property. At some point, the Sheriff notes that the industry with its huge trucks and massive traffic increase have destroyed the city’s roads. Well, maybe we can get an elected official on the screen to talk about the possibility of the company bearing a proportionate burden of its infrastructural damage. That’s why stories built from the ground like this can be so compelling and informative, because you can build out policy implications from the circumstances of the people you observe. If this is just supposed to be a portrait of a small town, it’s a bleak one with little more than blackouts, cheap motels, and a horizon blotted with cold, churning oil drills. When there is neither structure nor purpose in a documentary, the viewer is left in a floundering guessing game: Half projection, half dice roll. 

July 4th in Stanley, North Dakota

July 4th in Stanley, North Dakota

At some point, the film simply needs someone with a historical perspective, someone who can shed light on this economic process of narrow minded development that does little to benefit the long-term communities that it upends, guts, and abandons. The closest to any kind of above ground perspective comes from Byron Dorgan (Democratic Senator) who says we should drill, drill, drill and that he hopes that the town will be prepared for the potential for a bust. He hopes? He’s a legislator, isn’t there something he can do to make sure that companies try to build healthy post-boom economies in the places that they temporarily occupy. Noah Hutton seems more in love with images of industry and blurry highway shots set to guitar solos than he does with the actual issue that he tangents through. That’s the trouble with having a story told in rambling yarns by people who might be good in nature, but have absolutely no idea about the amount of oil they’re producing or how it may or may not offset our dependence on “troubled” regions. You end up having the default position of the few articulate people in the documentary talking about the absolute need for unregulated drilling, the greatness of Bush’s energy policy, and the fact that some of the Stanley residents have been able to build towering Japanese waterfalls in their living rooms with fat oil checks. That’s entirely too shoddy a treatment for such a pressing, complicated issue and does no favor of the people of Stanley to deny them a bird’s eye view with a side of hope.


by Rob Horning

18 Mar 2009

This Gawker item about the Facebook redesign offers a useful phrase for thinking about Twitterification generally: We are expected to be, or become, “omnivorous consumers of momentary trivia.” Not only that, but we are expected to produce that trivia ceaselessly and eagerly. This calls to mind Foucault’s ideas about power exercising itself not as repression—that is, as forbidding us to speak or to act in certain ways—but as permission, as a kind of broad encouragement to speak (albeit through discourses that constitute our identities along certain prescribed lines). Our participation lets power work through us, which we can experience as being exciting—as being part of the action; we are all under surveillance, but we understand that emotionally as “Hey, we’re all celebrities!” Foucault calls it “control by stimulation.” This is why people seem to feel compelled to use Twitter. We want to participate, want to be counted, want to count.

I assume someone out there is working on a dissertation (or has at least posted a really incisive blog entry—maybe among these) that does a Foucaldian analysis of social media (which I would be eager to read actually)—it fits so well with his predictions of a panoptic society. We are spying on each other (that’s certainly how it feels when someone tags me in a high school photo), and confessing ourselves to everybody else (in hourly 140-character broadcasts), and mistaking it all for entertainment consumption, ordinary leisure activities.

Social media tends to be understood as a kind of freedom to express ourselves in a new way; interactivity liberates us from one-way communication and affords us the opportunity to speak and participate. But this “freedom” can function as a kind of compulsion, as part of what Baudrillard et. al. called the “fun morality.” Foucault insisted that power is both decentralized (not a matter of some authority telling you what you must do) and productive (it allows more things to have a kind of social being, not fewer; creates more data, not less). In an interview in Power/Knowledge, he says, “What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.” Various modern technologies have brought about what he calls “a new economy of power” that allows “the effects of power to circulate in a manner at once continuous, uninterrupted, adapted, and ‘individualized’ throughout the entire social body.” In other words, there is no way to sneak around power because we are basically bathing in it, breathing it in and out at all times. Twitter-style discourse is the latest instance of a social discourse that functions this way, reinforcing the compulsion to confess. The “effects of power” Foucault is talking about, I think, is a matter of our being available—power makes us available to various social institutions so that are efforts can be harvested and our behavior channeled accordingly without our even conceiving of resistance.

by Terry Sawyer

18 Mar 2009

Make-Out is one of those movies where you peg the pitch within the first five minutes. This is Garden State with a zombie in it (complete with shambolic indie rock conspicuously framing far too many scenes). That seems to be a common denominator amongst films where the elements of the story are impressionistic or easily orphaned; they seem like premises before they were stories. Make-Out feels like it has styles and mimicked depth, but in the end it’s really for nothing, since the climax is just another scene, the last merciful domino to fall into place. Where the story lures you in (a mysterious death, the concentric aftershocks of grief), it mostly leaves them behind for a case study in circles of friends and family who have sexual interests in one another. It might gall the movie makers to hear this, but I kept thinking of Friends, a show I never watched, because it seemed to be about people I didn’t care about who mix-and-matched their fleeting emotional attachments to entertain themselves.

This is really a film about perverse objects of obsessive love, a subject much better mined by movies like Love Object and Elvis and Annabelle. Make-Out lacks emotional excavation. While one brother is chasing after someone who is of course in love with someone who will never love her back, the other brother proms up the zombie girl and feeds her birthday cake in a scene that embarrassingly steals from both Hannibal and Happy Birthday To Me. It’s obvious he’s projected a fairly impervious fantasy about the poor zombie, who he seems to know little about, but loves freshening up her lipstick and feeding her fresh rat heads.

As far as zombie’s go, Wendy is comparatively inanimate. Even a couple of well-fed dogs barely rouse her to a hobble and she can’t even eat her own birthday cake. If there were any emotional investment to be had in this movie, this might be an unsettling, painful, and poignant place to start. How do we let go? In fact, I admire the premise that a huge number of people would simply try to normalize the resurrection of a loved one, even a flesh eating one, because the power of grief can decimate the rational. But the normalization goes too far, to a point of blasé that makes you instinctively ask why no one who finds a friend thought to be dead, tied up and convulsing uncontrollably, would call the hospital?

Of course even the most ridiculous premise can be sold with a character. An audience can forgive a generously leaking plot, if they can find someone to invest in, root for, someone even to hate. Make-Out is completely rotten with Xanax-barred emotion, where every character sounds like they accessing memorized narcissistic platitudes about their feelings, but they don’t really seem to have feelings. There’s a ridiculous sub-plot on the secrets of making a grieving girl fall in love with and have sex with you that’s just one more out-of-place element jockeying for an overall tone. That’s why it feels so much like a sales pitch. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s got cute indie people talking past each other, a beautiful corpse and a soundtrack for people who use depression the way children use binkies and blankets. 

Did I mention the little boy, molded after a Stand By Me character, who voice-overs the entire movie with paltry narrative gloss on the snail trailing plot shards? The viewer doesn’t need the additional distancing of the omniscient narrator who begins as a crucial character and then, like so much of the movie, gets thrown away to follow some other half-formed mood or anemic repartee. Does anyone care how this girl died? It’s slightly suggested that she died because one of the characters may or may not have a dark, sadistic sexual interest in her, but why doesn’t the director care? Why is it more important to have a scene where the prelude to a kiss is, “Let’s get awesome.”

This could have easily been enjoyably farcical and ultimately creepy in the way that people don’t really how truly dehumanizing idolizing love can be. This film needed something other than a series of marketing takes. The writing never salvages the restless remains of the story. If Hal Hartley used to be detachment for people who had lived too much; Make-Out is just lazy ennui, a movie with the momentum of sleep and the conscience of a bored sociopath who likes Gossip Girl.


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