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Saturday, Jun 21, 2008

Sometimes, comedy is as much about the messenger as it is the message. Case in point: Adam Carolla. The stand-up/performer, responsible for such contrasting fare as Loveline (the radio and TV relationships show he co-hosted with Dr. Drew Pinsky from 1995 until 2005), the chauvinistic romp The Man Show, and Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers, is one of those odd, ‘love him or hate him’ entities. His smug, pseudo-frat boy shtick can grow horribly tiresome, and yet his quick sarcastic wit can reduce the most ridiculous circumstance down to a targeted one liner. So a feel good sports satire starring the man as an aging boxer grabbing one last shot at glory stands little chance of succeeding, except in small snippets, right? Wrong. The Hammer is actually one of the funniest films that the still sagging laugh-a-thon genre has to offer.


For Jerry Ferro, turning 40 is just another day on the calendar. His girlfriend still complains about his lack of ambition, his Nicaraguan best friend Ozzy remains naively optimistic about America as a land of opportunity, and his boss still hates his guts. Luckily, he can go to the local gym and work off his frustrations. As a former teen pugilist, Jerry enjoys the fight game. He even teaches a few classes to keep sharp. When he knocks out a cocky competitor during a sparing match, he earns the respect of a noted Olympic trainer. Soon, he has signed up to compete in the regional tryouts, with a shot at making the 2008 games in Beijing. And thanks to a budding relationship with public defender Lindsay Pratt, things are looking up on the interpersonal front as well.


Built out of character, not crudity, and wonderfully uplifting without being maudlin or pat, The Hammer (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) is actually quite accomplished. Considering its independent production paradigm and low budget limitations, it is a funny and fresh take on material that’s as old as cinema itself. The tale of a washed up loser finding redemption in one more tour of competitive duty is not new - just ask Wallace Berry, Sylvester Stallone, or John Voight. It plays into everyone’s desire for a second chance, the possibility of being true to their own nature, and the universal wish fulfillment that comes with winning. Carolla’s character is a decent guy dealt cards he can never play. By using boxing as a way back, he has a chance at finally re-stacking the deck in his favor.


A storyline like this is prone to cliché, but Carolla - who came up with the idea and worked closely with Kevin Hench on the script - avoids all but the most mandatory of chestnuts. We have a crusty old trainer that’s seen it all, contrasted by the girlfriend without a lick of faith in her man. There’s the idealistic young lawyer who puts her clients in front of her career, and the foreign best buddy whose broken English expressions hold a world of cockeyed wisdom. Between the black boxer with a stubborn, nu-jack attitude, to the last act discovery and betrayal, The Hammer could easily be a solid studio era potboiler. Toss in an A-list actor (or equally forgotten face) and you’d have that classic combination of underdog tale and five hanky tearjerker.


Except…The Hammer doesn’t want to be so obvious. That is why casting Carolla is crucial to the film’s success - and the difficulty in marketing it. As a celebrity, he gives off a vibe of being crude and confrontational. Many have gotten the mistaken impression that he’s one step away from Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass joking, or Howard Stern without the outward adolescent obsessions with sex. Carolla, however, is a far more complicated comedian. He mines both the intellectual and the illiterate for his wit, a sly satiric commentator rather than a simple set-up and punch line jokester. Yet thanks to the limited settings he’s been seen in, audiences still think of him as abrasive and obnoxious.


It’s an underserved reputation that makes the first few minutes of The Hammer rather disorienting. When faced with a jerk-off boss, we anticipate the moment where Carolla will dig into his bag of ironclad insults and lay into the butthead with verve. As his soon to be ex-girlfriend is dressing him down, undermining everything that makes him human (let alone a man) we anticipate Jerry’s epithet-laden screed. And we wait. Soon, we learn what makes this movie so winning. Unlike other so-called comedies which let a stand-up simply walk into frame and start regurgitating their act, The Hammer gives us realistic, recognizable characters. That Jerry is genuinely funny is just one of his endearing attributes. He’s also troubled, lost, vulnerable, and sickeningly loyal.


There is one scene in particular which shows how well Carolla and Hench balance their approach (with a little help from solid direction by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld). Jerry wants to take lawyer Lindsay on a date. She suggests an afternoon at LA’s goofy La Brea Tar Pits. After he gets over the fact that it’s not a nighttime get together, his string of snappy comebacks while at the historic site are marvelous. Not only is it important for the supposed humor of the piece, but it shows Jerry to be the loveable loser, a man whose hound dog expression hides a winning inner warmth. All throughout The Hammer, the interaction of individuals builds the laughs, not some high concept cop-out or a descent into the scatological.


Perhaps that’s why the DVD commentary track featuring Carolla and Hench is so enlightening. Arguing over how the film received an “R” rating from the MPAA (instead of a much more deserving PG-13), the pair proceed to dissect the script, commenting on how true they are to the “sweet science” as well as arguments over levels of humor and how far outside the boundaries of taste to go. Some of this also shows up in the deleted scenes, Carolla clearly being allowed to run wild, only to have Herman-Wurmfeld reel him in during editing. In fact, what much of the bonus material here indicates is that the age old adages about comedy centering on timing and tenacity remain very true indeed.


Because it refrains from pushing the ordinary aside for the outlandish, because Carolla’s normal (or at the very least, notorious) persona has been modified to fit this material, The Hammer is heartfelt and hilarious. Yet, when faced with how to advertise this movie to the many who already know the man, what can a studio do? If you play up his piggish party boy image, you risk reducing the film to something it truly isn’t. On the other hand, if you tell the truth, reflecting the story’s good natured, journeyman jocularity, you risk dismissing the demographic immediately drawn to the man’s beers and babes cockiness. Frankly, The Hammer can’t win either way, which is rather sad. This genial comedy should be a strapping sleeper success. Instead, it may wind up forgotten, as washed up as the characters at its core. And as with the man at the center of the film itself, it deserves better.


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Saturday, Jun 21, 2008
Max Tundra - "Lysine"

Electronica can be a cold beast. The sputters and clicks of a hard drive at work (think Autechre) certainly stimulate the brain, but personally, I rarely get the pure rush of endorphins that a perfect pop song generates. That is what makes Max Tundra’s (born Ben Jacobs) work all the more miraculous: he works in the idiom of electronic music (he has released two albums on Warp), yet his music sounds like that of a child discovering every sound and genre known to man. Mastered By Guy at the Exchange is Aphex Twin waking up on the sunny side of the bed, and “Lysine” is the afternoon trip to the beach. Over skipping percussion and a catchy analog synth line, Ben’s sister Becky Jacobs intones:


I isolate amino acids sometimes
I bottle them and sell them when the sun shines
Cold sores erupt if you don’t keep lysine levels healthy
A tingle on your lip, should come and see me


A helpful and humorous warning, no? Then the Steely Dan bridge comes in and all hell breaks loose [I’m glad Popmatters has given me the opportunity to write sentences like that]. The percussion explodes into so many pieces that I’ve spent the last six years trying to piece it together, and I enjoy it every single time. So much work must have gone into every second of the song, yet it is transcendentally fun. The wait for the next Tundra album has been long, but it is promised some time later this year. My musical blood sugar level is getting low.


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Friday, Jun 20, 2008

As stated before, the gossip got it wrong. Troma, left for dead by pundits who proclaimed its “Poultrygeist only” business plan a model for nothing but failure, wasn’t really on the brink of extinction. Instead, the independent titan responsible for such memorable cult classics as The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet was merely reconfiguring its priorities. It needed to move from its Manhattan digs when unscrupulous landlords raised their rent by a ridiculous amount, and the lack of available DVD product had nothing to do with a deteriorating bank account. Instead, the company’s latest big screen spectacle, a deranged chicken zombie flick, needed a theatrical chance before more digital delights hit the local B&M.


This past April saw the label finally return to the fan-friendly format, offering up the ganja goof Pot Zombies, and just last month, two more treats were unleashed on unsuspecting audiences everywhere. And both Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos were just like other items in the distributor’s cockeyed catalog - oddball finds from a world slowly embracing the DIY moviemaking ethos. This pattern continues with June’s releases. In Offensive Behaviour, a group of idiosyncratic individuals find themselves locked in a struggle between life, love (or at least, sex), and death. In addition, Demons Among Us takes the corrupt corporate take-over of the media and imagines it as a parable involving a small Australian town under the onslaught of a group of devil-possessed killers.


In our first film, the residents of a small New Zealand apartment complex, are having a hard time coping. For them, things couldn’t get much worse. Upstairs, Quentin is sick of his nagging girlfriend Debbie. She wants him to give up his dreams of being a filmmaker and get a job. He just wants to sell a screenplay. Suddenly inspired, he decides to star her in a porno with best buddy Clarke to gain some quick cash. Meanwhile, an effeminate hitman/hairdresser named Nigel is also being harassed by his bitter old nun of a mother. She wants him to follow in the family footsteps - professional assassination. He just wants to style and blow. When a $500K contract job goes awry, it draws everyone into a surreal circle of sex, violence, and misplaced mail.


Beginning with a perfectly awful (and quite hilarious) movie pitch, and channeling the post-modern indie ideal fostered by such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, Offensive Behaviour is neither as outrageous as it thinks it is, or as funny as it could be. Five years in the making, Patrick Gillies’ good natured gonzo can’t quite match the men he’s mimicking, but then again, it’s hard to feel fresh when your final product has been gestating since 1999. If you remove all the Pulp Snatch strategies and the planned tastelessness, one winds up with a decent, quite winning comment on how technology and the Super VHS spirit have changed filmmaking.



Since our hero fancies himself another homemade auteur, it’s interesting to see the clueless way Gillies handles him. Wide eyed optimism is one thing - brain dead filmmaking fundamentalism is another. When Quentin stumbles across a pile of rotting corpses, he doesn’t shirk. Instead, he revs up the camcorder and creates a snuff subtext. In fact, the whole living room smut storyline is far more successful than the swishy, stereotyped mother/son material. During these moments, both actors do a wonderful job of turning up the tension, and the dialogue has a wonderfully fresh ring to it. But anytime a director resorts to limp-wristed revelry in portraying a homosexual, instant proto-PC flags start flying. Gillies tries to countermand this notion by making the other gay character far more ‘normal’, but even he ends up wielding a dildo in a strange, Star Wars like battle scene.



Overall, Offensive Behaviour feels more like a miss than a hit. It still has much to recommend it - gallant performances, witty scripting, definite directorial flare, and a welcome cultural subtext - and yet it also feels incomplete. We never know why our family of assassins is after the grubby guy in the Apartment 7. We can’t quite fathom the attraction between Debbie and Clarke…that is, until a last minute denouement tries to clear it up. The ending does reek of the slightest of rip-offs, having it all be a ‘dream’ being just as crass as what is offered, and no movie can kill an innocent guinea pig (totally offscreen) and get away with it. As a matter of fact, Offensive Behaviour is the kind of film that offers a fairly balanced collection of positives and negatives. How you gauge the balance will definitely decide your personal entertainment fate.



On the other hand, Demons Among Us has no such issues. This is a straight ahead horror movie with small touches of David Lynch tossed in for added atmosphere. When Joe moves into a tiny town in the Australian outback, he senses something sinister in the air. Isolation has rendered the place odd, and slightly off-putting. One day, the entire Winters family is found dead, their bodies torn apart in senseless savagery. Naturally, the newcomer is the prime suspect, but our hero knows differently. Seems he’s convinced that Hell’s minions are running rampant throughout the countryside, and they mean to destroy all life on the planet. With the help of local gal Kylie Fitzgerald and Police Sergeant Geoff Harding, he hopes to uncover - and put an end to - their Satanic plot.



If ambience were indicative of brilliance, Stuart Simpson’s Demons Among Us would be genius. It’s unusual Donwunder locations, accented by excellent camerawork and powerful post-production tricks, yields an amazing assortment of moods. It also adds a great deal of necessary menace. Since Simpson isn’t out to fully explain his evil media premise - there is a strong link between advertising and malevolence established - and because his narrative is so straightforward (death, investigation, accusation), he needs something to fill in the blanks. Luckily, his work behind the lens is so impressive we forgive the occasional flaws. In fact, the missing elements add an aura of mystery that actually works here.



It helps that he has a capable cast of actors to realize his vision. Nathaniel Kiwi is excellent as Joe, bringing the right amount of disbelief and drive to his character. Similarly, newcomer Laura Hesse isn’t hampered by some kind of Method mannerism. Her shock seems very real, her decision to fight born out of personal determination, not some scripted circumstance. Perhaps the most difficult individual element here is the slightly silly enigma known as Ed Winters. Essayed by Peter Roberts (who also plays the investigating detective) in gin blossom makeup and dark sunglasses, we never get a handle on this crude corporate shark. He seems the perfect target for a mangoat marketing scheme, but we’d like to know more about what he represents, realistically.



Still, Demons Among Us delivers in the all important fright department, its frequent homages to films like The Evil Dead neatly buried inside its own angle on supernatural terror. The gore is plentiful, and yet kept in check, while the numerous camera tricks (multiple exposures, digital F/X) add another layer of inventiveness. Sure, there are obvious moments of genre referencing, as when Kylie carries a camera into a dark passageway, night vision reflecting the unseen nastiness within, and we never sense the story being properly wrapped up. Indeed, one gets the impression that Simpson is prepared to go down the full Raimi road, delivering sequels meant to explore the legimately loose ends. As it stands, this is a great beginning. But even if we never see another installment, what our independent maverick has created here remains quite impressive.


As usual, Troma tries to flesh out these unknown entities the best they can. The images are uniformly good, especially when you consider the lo-fi aspects of the productions. Similarly, the scant added content (some bloopers for Offensive, a Making-of and a gross out short for Demons) doesn’t detract from the movies they’re meant to supplement. In fact, it’s fair to say that with this batch of DVDs, the once floundering reputation of Lloyd Kaufman’s indie icon is completely back on track. These are the kind of films Troma built their current reputation on - completely unlike what the mainstream delivers while coming curiously close to the art the CEO consistently champions. It’s good to know that, with all the changes affecting the industry, there is still such a home for outsider cinema.


If you like your comedy cockeyed and just a tad underdone, Offensive Behaviour will deliver enough chuckles to eventually win you over. Just don’t worry too much about Patrick Gillies’ overcomplicated script and you’ll definitely enjoy the ride…or at least, part of it. Demons Among Us, on the other hand, is a minor masterwork, the kind of creep out that stands as a solid example of one man’s unfettered vision. It’s the sort of movie one gets lost in - and from the looks of it, this is not the nicest place to lose one’s way. Together they signify what Kaufman and the clan have been arguing over for months - Troma is back. Frankly, based on the influence the company can claim here, they never ever really left.


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Friday, Jun 20, 2008

All About Style


Anyone in attendance would have easily thought it was a Saturday night instead of a Tuesday as they gazed into the eyes of starlets Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo.


In the crowded Vic Theater, packed with people dressed for the occasion in all sorts of mod, emo, and punk attire (sometimes elements of all three!), the four members of Ladytron emerged on stage adorned by alternating strobes. The two male members of the band, Liverpool natives Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu, stayed back, immersed in total darkness, while Mira and Helen took to the front in matching silky black attire. Much like a microcosm of their music, many of their effects remained concealed mysteriously in the back. Up front, Korg keyboards were de rigueur, and the alternating vocals of Helen and Mira sailed over the instrumental onslaught. At times, their chords assaulted the cheering crowd; at other times they drifted across in waves. Each strobe cast a mixture of intense bright light and shadows across the pair of female singers, the harshness matching the onslaught of sound that often emerged from the stage.


Ladytron are currently on tour to support their recently released fourth studio album Velocifero. Like their past albums, it is packed with synth-pop goodies that mix a dreamy sensibility with the compulsion to dance. “Ghosts” and “Runaway” came off particularly well, with a lushness expected of this electropop quartet. They mixed these new songs with old favorites, such as “Playgirl” and “Seventeen”. Though there was minimal stage banter, Ladytron did seem appreciative of their audience who basked in the glory of the music.



Tagged as: ladytron, photos
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Friday, Jun 20, 2008

If goods become free, but consumption takes time, we may find ourselves in danger of being overwhelmed with things we have acquired that are demanding the time to be used. This hidden time cost of seemingly free things is easy to overlook, because we don’t customarily think of goods costing us anything but money. But internet distribution is changing the economics of cultural consumption, unleashing the attention economy, and forcing us to consider how we budget our limited time for information intake. In The Harried Leisure Class, Staffan Linder suggests that we will stop collecting information and consume more ignorantly instead in an effort to cram more consumption into our days, buying first and asking questions later, if ever. We buy goods based on whatever information came to us, via ads or advice, rather than expend precious consumption time doing our own research.


But isn’t it Google that is supposedly “making us stupid,” as Nicolas Carr argues in this Atlantic piece? Though Google is in some ways the ultimate research tool, reducing the time necessary to find information (hence the end of pointless arguments about factual things at family meals; now we just look things up), it also gives us information without much context, without our having to make the effort to organize our investigations. It also gives us way too much information, more or less indiscriminately—our searches aren’t always particularly refined. And Carr’s point is that it changes how we read: Citing developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, he writes,


the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.


The advantage reaped by the speed with which we can acquire information is negated by the sheer amount that comes back at us. And the ease at which we get this plenitude tempts us into the shallow, efficiency-oriented pseudo-reading that Carr is concerned about. The time we have to read is limited, and we have so much more to read, that inevitably we start to select the easier stuff to read so we can feel like we are sucking down more of it.


I think about this sometimes when I’m editing, honing text and deleting words and tightening prose and resolving ambiguities and misleading phrasings so that it may be more easily processed by readers. I’m helping them read it faster so they will understand it more quickly, but at a much more superficial level. As Carr writes, “Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.”


Linder argues that as we become squeezed for consumption time, we’ll consume more expensive things over cheaper things when possible to make use of more goods on a total-cost basis. But when the cost of goods is zero, what happens then? As behavioral economists (most vociferously, Dan Ariely) have pointed out, we find the promise of free things hard to resist (even when a little thinking reveals that the free-ness is illusory). So when with very little effort we can accumulate massive amounts of “free” stuff from various places on the internet, we can easily end up with 46 days (and counting) worth of unplayed music on a hard drive. We end up with a permanent 1,000+ unread posts in our RSS reader, and a lingering, unshakable feeling that we’ll never catch up, never be truly informed, never feel comfortable with what we’ve managed to take in, which is always in the process of being undermined by the free information feeds we’ve set up for ourselves. We end up haunted by the potential of the free stuff we accumulate, and our enjoyment of any of it becomes severely impinged. The leisure and unparalleled bounty of a virtually unlimited access to culture ends up being an endless source of further stress, as we feel compelled to take it all in. Nothing sinks in as we try to rush through it all, and our rushing does nothing to keep us from falling further behind—often when I attempt to tackle the unread posts in my RSS reader, I end up finding new feeds to add, and so on, and I end up further behind than when I started. It’s hard enough for me to delete a feed from Google reader; it’s even harder to get rid of unneeded stuff I’ve taken physical possession of, even if it was free to begin with, even if I can remember vividly fishing it out of a pile of garbage on my walk home from the subway. (Sometimes that little self-aggrandizing narrative makes it harder. Such stuff plays into my fantasy of myself as some kind of shrewd scavenger, beating the “system” by living off its cast-off crap—I tend to forget that the deluded hippies in the Manson family had the same dream.)


One way of coping with the problem of being overwhelmed with free stuff is to voluntarily impose prices, a kind of Pigovian tax that internalizes the time costs of consumption. Steve Randy Waldman, in detailing his idea for a postage system for email, is attacking a related problem—because emailing is free, there is nothing stopping us from being inundated with unwanted messages, but if the sender was willing to pay, we might take that into account and become willing to read. And if it’s a message we wanted, from someone we know, we could refund the postage.


The receiver of the mail would set the postage rate and get the money. That is, you do not pay a postal service for delivering mail (that’s free in the internet age), you pay the recipient for the burden your correspondence places upon her attention…. It would serve as a guarantee of nonabusiveness, but would rarely be paid. Therefore, people could set their postage rates fairly high without losing mail they care about.


But what about when we abuse ourselves, say, by signing up for Rapidshare and downloading every album posted on an mp3 blog? It’s hard to imagine volunteering to pay for something you know you can get for free, but then we risk making everything we have accumulated worthless from the sheer inability to find anything or decide among things.


I often feel like I’m strung between two conflicting ideologies, and outmoded one oriented toward getting as much as you can, and a new one oriented toward navigating an endless tide of information. They are basically two different ways of looking at how to anchor one’s identity, with the side effect of structuring how we consume. The epitome of the old way was to become a collector, to see yourself in stuff; the new ideology points us toward seeking fame, to see ourselves reflected back in the shimmering pool of digitized information.


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