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Sunday, Mar 23, 2008

After the Saul Williams album he produced didn’t tear the charts, a frustrated Trent Reznor got pissy, saying that fans didn’t want to support artists at all, even when they provided a quick, direct, cheap way to get the music online.  Williams took a much more mature view, saying that offering music to fans online for what they wanna pay is a new experiment and that it will pay off long term.  As such, I didn’t have much hope when Raznor offered the new Nine Inch Nails album, Ghosts I-IV, online the same way from his own site, especially as it was an instrumental set.  Boy was I wrong… and I’m glad too.


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Sunday, Mar 23, 2008


Unlike most cinematic genres, the Hong Kong crime film is a fluid, flexible category. It can easily embrace horror, comedy, drama, and even the occasional excursion into science fiction. The main reason for this is that the plot usually centers most of its purpose in a good vs. evil, black hat/white hat dynamic. Even better, such a storyline typically allows its heroes and villains to be multifaceted and purposefully ambiguous. One of the best examples of the dimensional dynamic is Johnny To’s P.T.U.: Police Tactical Unit. It takes a simple tale of one cop’s search for his missing gun and turns its overnight vignettes into a meditation on loyalty, duty, purpose, and personal regret.


When overweight Sgt. Lo gets into a scuffle with the gang of local hoodlum Ponytail, he comes out of the attack badly beaten and missing his gun. Among Hong Kong police, such an error is unconscionable. Hoping to save face, he gets his friend in the PTU, Sgt. Ho, to cover for him. The two agree - if they can’t find the weapon by morning, they will both report it to CID/Internal Affairs. Of course, this doesn’t keep steely eyed agent Inspector Leigh Cheung from following up on the case. Lo, who knows both crime bosses in the area, decides to play both against each other to find his missing piece. But they also want revenge for a recent assassination and may be setting up the policeman to take the fall.


Dark, noirish, and loaded with late night atmosphere, PTU: Police Tactical Unit (new to DVD from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty label) is an intriguing take on the standard cops and robbers routine. It proves that Johnny To - often referred to as the Woody Allen of Hong Kong - is a master of composition and the camera, taking risks while following standard filmic formulas. At its very core, this is a story about policemen protecting and playing off each other, the responsibility they owe to the public matched by their own internal code of conduct. It deals directly with human foibles and departmental frictions. It begins slowly, shuffling its cards meticulously before playing its flashy final hand, and after it’s all over, we realize there’s much more here than meets the eye.


For the vast majority of the film’s running time, we are involved in a three way struggle between street smart flatfoots, by-the-book procedural lawmen, and glorified gangster bravado. Director To balances all of these elements into a slowly synchronized dance, adding bits and pieces along the way to add depth to what could be a typical bit of law and order. Because Lo is somewhat loyal to both sides of the situation, because Ho understands this beat cop’s need, because Leigh Cheung is seen as bureaucracy incarnate, the infighting between them is far more intriguing than any tired Triad mechanics. While a sequence inside one boss’s den, complete with caged criminals being systematical brutalized, gives us the standard shock value of the genre, To takes away from such sensationalizing by keeping the clockwork plot percolating. 


All of which makes the way this film was created all the more intriguing. As part of the bonus features offered on the DVD, we learn that P.T.U. was made over three years. That’s right, three YEARS. Shooting almost exclusively at night, and when cast and crew could take the time away from other projects, there’s an intimacy born out of necessity here. Commentator Bey Logan, a stalwart of the Dragon Dynasty series, suggests that To was able to take this approach because of his solid reputation. While other filmmakers have to fumble for available production staff, or feed the mainstream needs of the industry, this director can call upon a stellar group of company confederates for what amounts to a night and weekend pickup. Logan also adds that, like Allen, To tends to be dismissed in his native land as being an idiosyncratic, critical darling. While P.T.U. was a hit, it didn’t match the international attention of Election or Triad Election.


Of course, the actors who work with To tend to dismiss such sentiments. The disc also contains interviews with Simon Yam (Sgt. Ho) and P.T.U. team member Kat (actress Maggie Shiu). To them, the film is a chance to explore all facets of character interaction - the noble and the wicked, the expected and the outsized. Yam praises the fact that there was no script when the shoot started. It allowed him to dig deeper into his persona, experimenting with tone and temperament. Shiu also enjoys working with To, especially in the action scenes. And then there is said ending. Taking a page out of the John Woo playbook, To sets the entire slow motion firefight to an amazing ambient score. As the bullets fly in frame by frame fastidiousness, we get the grandeur of such a sequence, as well as the horror of such a bloodbath.


It’s the perfect payoff for all the foundation laying P.T.U. does. This is a film as firecracker, the lost gun acting as a lit fuse to further push the plot toward its explosive end. Fans who enjoy the clichés created by the genre over the last two decades may not enjoy all the subterfuge and slow burn here. They want choreographed chaos and lots of it. Instead, Johnny To is more interested in the human toll taken by such a tightrope walk. On the one hand, criminals are running ramshackle over the Hong Kong streets, mandating new and novel police protection agencies like the P.T.U. On the other hand, the lure of easy money and professional frustration leads to lawlessness on the wrong side of the badge. For Johnny To, this dramatic dichotomy creates inherently volatile cinema. P.T.U.: Police Tactical Unit is an excellent example of this ideal. 



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Saturday, Mar 22, 2008

Maybe it’s true that Canadians are just simply nicer. While American graphic novels of late have been concerning themselves with abject self hatred (Adrian Tomine), vampire slackers (Jessica Abel), and the like, Michel Rabagliati just goes on creating work that’s just as inherently decent as ever. In Paul Goes Fishing, his third graphic novel—Paul Moves Out and Paul Gets a Summer Job being the previous installments—Rabagliati continues his penchant for crafting delicately hued graphic autobiographies that are just as winning as any of the grimmer and self-lacerating work being produced in the lower 48 states, but often just as psychologically astute. Nice doesn’t have to mean clueless.


A Montreal-based illustrator and family man with practically no experience in the outdoors, Rabagliati spends the first part of his newest volume learning how to go fishing, of course. Using the structure of a summer vacation at a lakeside cabin with some friends, Rabagliati spins off from that basic conceit to explore his relationship with his father, his childhood (sparked by his re-reading in the cabin of Catcher in the Rye, a favorite from his moody youth), and the painful process he and his wife endure in a series of difficult pregnancies. He also finds the time to provide a short history of the graphic arts industry’s transition from hand-work to personal computers that beautifully skewers the designers’ cult of the Macintosh (“between 1987 and 1995, I handed over more than $40,000 to Apple & Co. for equipment that was practically obsolete before I’d even unpacked it.”)


Through all this, Rabagliati keeps a basically upbeat mood, with his freshly energetic black-and-white illustrations and cast of characters who are pretty much always (with a few obvious exceptions) smiling. Rabagliati’s approach verges on Archie comics simplicity at times (when characters cry, it’s actually rendered as “boo hoo”), but it somehow never seems fake, and that’s the beauty of this book. For all their troubles and occasional emotional outbursts, Rabagliati’s cast seems a supremely decent and nice group who anybody would consider themselves lucky to know. To create that kind of world, and to do it in a way that is far from insulting to one’s intelligence, takes a rare kind of talent, something that Rabagliati has in spades. Must be the Canadian in him.


You can view a preview (in .pdf form) of Paul Goes Fishing over at Drawn & Quarterly’s website here.


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Friday, Mar 21, 2008


Sometimes, a filmmaker needs to be dragged out of his or her comfort zone. It’s not because what they do is so dull or derivative. Far from it. However, in the ‘what have you done for me now’ world of Hollywood, repeating oneself can be akin to career suicide. For Frank Darabont, such a situation is actually a double edged sword. An admired master at adapting Stephen King’s sometimes difficult literary works into solid big screen efforts, he’s taken three of the bestselling author’s works - The Women in the Room, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile - and turned them into solid cinematic statements.


But for a man who got his start crafting several genre scripts for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Blob remake, and the Fly sequel, he’s never directed a straight horror film himself. So when it was announced that Darabont would next take on the much beloved novella, The Mist, the reaction was definitely mixed. Many felt that, once again, Darabont was treading down totally familiar territory. The fear faithful, however, were anticipating something special. Even when less than impressive casting and the director’s decision to go ‘low budget’ were announced, the geeks were prepared for macabre manna…and it was well worth the wait. The Mist is destined to go down as a modern horror classic. The DVD release (from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Company) furthers the film’s spell.


When a powerful Nor’easter tears through a tiny Maine town, movie poster artist and family man David Drayton discovers that a massive branch has torn through his studio, and a stubborn neighbor’s dead tree has destroyed his beautiful boathouse. After heading into town to buy supplies, he is stunned to see a local man running into the store, screaming. He claims that there is something in the oncoming mist, and as the patrons watch the fog roll over the parking lot, the screams of those stuck outside suggest that there may indeed be a presence there. Some think it’s a joke. That includes the big city lawyer Brent Norton and local yokel Jim Grondin. On the other side of the situation is bitchy Bible thumper Mrs. Carmody. She’s convinced its Judgment Day, and suggests the shoppers use a blood sacrifice - expiation - to appease a vengeful God. Between Drayton, who believes in truth, and Carmody, whose stirring up dissent, clear sides are drawn. About the only level headed individual is store clerk OIlie – that is, until the monsters actually arrive.



It needs to be repeated, just in case you missed it the first time - Frank Darabont’s The Mist is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of determined fright flick that few in the industry know how to make - or even comprehend. Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, - the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. There’s even a nice amount of gore and some unexpected darkness. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant.


There are times when you can literally see the director ducking the likely to lunge over into the unpredictable. In the audio commentary that accompanies the two disc collector’s edition, Darabont admits that he did everything he could to avoid the carefully controlled compositions and framing of his previous films. He used two cameras simultaneously, moving fluidly throughout the grocery store set. There is no music used during the first 80 minutes, and a real lack of sonic cues when the terror is about the strike. In his script, which follows King’s story very faithfully, Darabont also lets its character’s core elements overstay their welcome. Good guys are almost too noble, baddies belligerent in their shocking psychotic cravenness.


Take Thomas Jane’s David Drayton. He’s the perfect hypocritical hero. Out of one side of his mouth comes a calming, ‘let’s work together’ sort of spiel. On the other hand, he gets his ‘followers’ together to horde food and plan an escape. Similarly, he warns others about apparent acts of altruistic sacrifice. Yet he’s typically the first to volunteer for any suicide mission. Though he’s more a b-list personality than a real blockbuster anchor, Jane is very good here. He balances both sides of his protagonist with Darabont-intended ease.



Sitting on the other end of the situational scale is outright horror Marcia Gay Harden. Her Jesus loving Mrs. Carmody is not just some Gospel spewing shrew. She’s a manipulative cow, the perfect embodiment of the Jim Jones type of cult killer that King used originally to formulate the story. There are moments where you literally want to reach up from your seat and wring her self-righteous neck. That’s either great writing, great directing, great acting, or a combination of all three.


Indeed, what happens between people is far more important and terrifying than the various chaotic creature sequences in the film. When King described them in his novella, they were a perfect mind’s eye payoff, gifts for the reader still rapidly turning pages. In the film version of The Mist, they are the inevitable catalysts, the reasons for the characters challenging – and in some cases, harming – each other. Without them, we wouldn’t have the standoff between Drayton and Andre Braugher’s Norton. There wouldn’t be the reunion between young lovers Sally and AWOL GI Wayne…or the fatal finish to their relationship. We wouldn’t have the preaching, the plotting, the gun waving anarchy, or the fear-based fisticuffs.


Thanks to Greg Nicotero and the tireless efforts of KNB F/X, the featured fiends have a wonderful computer generated junkiness. They are definitely derived from the ‘50s schlock cinema which originally inspired King. During the commentary, we learn that this was all part of Darabont’s plan. He wanted to make a throwback kind of movie, a drive-in delight for the home theater crowd. The featurettes on Disc Two discuss this concept, and there’s even a black and white version of the entire film (with an into by the director). It’s all aimed at capturing that certain post-War passion pit feel of a Burt I. Gordon or Ray Kellogg.



And then there is the ending. Much has been written about Darabont straying rather significantly from King’s original conclusion, but there’s a reason for that. During his discussion, the director points out that you can’t have an ambiguous send-off after 90 minutes of purposefully paced realism. Imagine if the characters that you’ve followed for nearly two hours simply got in a vehicle, plotted a course, and headed on down the highway. Fade out. Roll credits. There’d be much more fervor over such an anticlimactic moment than the angst being aimed at Darabont’s decision.


Logic states that a bleak and rationality based narrative demands an equally dour and grim finish. Is it painful and purposefully harsh? Yes. Does it ruin the experience overall? Only if you’re the kind of person who can’t stare the truth in its desperate and ill-prepared face. In an included Making-of, King embraces the choice. As a matter of fact, he likes it so much that he would have used it himself, had he thought of it at the time. Oddly enough, Darabont quotes lines from the novella showing where his inspiration came from. Clearly, the literary master of horror wasn’t so far from this finale after all. 


When it comes right down to it,The Mist is not a movie about semi-super human men challenging the forces of darkness like invincible immortals. This is not the kind of film where antagonists heed the pleas of those wanting compromise or the reckless reel in their hasty reactions. Darabont has used King’s creative premise as the outline for a dissection of panic – how people react to it, and how our very humanity helps to fuel it. What we are witnessing is not really a horror movie, but a mock doc depiction of how man is more menacing than some interstellar interlopers. It’s an uncomfortable lesson to learn, but as Ollie the clerk says, humans as a species are fundamentally insane. Put two of them in a room and they’ll pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Frank Darabont may by now be a cliché, the first filmmaking name associated with the most successful genre author ever. But there is nothing formulaic, or false here. The Mist is magnificent.


 


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Friday, Mar 21, 2008

Lots of people think renting is for suckers. Part of this is because of landlords, widely reputed to be deadbeats who collect rent for doing nothing. But rent is just another way of consuming the necessary good called shelter; homeownership is simply an alternative that masks the consumption process as depreciation and mortgage payments. For some reason people don’t mind paying bankers rent in the form of interest payments on the money they borrow to buy housing, perhaps because of the tax breaks on this expense. But mostly it is because people fetishize ownership and misconstrue homes as investment instead of consumption. This list of five home ownership myths (via Ezra Klein) makes this point very succinctly.


The reality is that housing is not an investment. It’s shelter. That is all housing has ever been. Self-serving organizations like the National Association of Realtors like to tell people that buying a home is a good way to build long-term wealth, but this statement couldn’t be further from the truth.
Although home prices can go up (and down), the rate of appreciation on housing does not surpass inflation levels over the long-term. Between 1890 and 2004, the real return on housing was a pathetic 0.4 percent per year over the last 100 years, according to Robert Shiller, a housing expert and Yale economist.
Real estate investments aren’t that much better over the short-term. The gain in new home prices over the last 20 years has been a mere fraction of the Dow’s gain. The average person investing in stocks between 1987 and 2007 would have made more money than the average person who bought a new home in 1987.


The homebuying frenzy sustained a lot of people in the parasitical industries that surround the fiendishly complicated process of real estate sales, but that doesn’t mean it was necessarily any good for the people making the purchases. Those now in negative equity are probably finding that out, and I wonder how much solace they have in the fact that they are making mortgage payments and not “throwing their money away” on rent.


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