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by Karen Zarker

17 Dec 2008

“There is poetry in the Rand McNally Atlas and wonder in the back rooms and basements of a thousand local archives and historical societies…”, writes Matt Weiland, co-editor of this anthology. So, too, lyrical prose of varying rhythm and timbre is composed in 50 entries from 50 writers here—each penning an entry about a different state in the Union. But unlike historical archives, these are not encyclopedic entries about, say, North Dakota (although there is a little bit of encyclopedic trivia provided at the beginning of each chapter). For example, who better to write about North Dakota than Louise Erdrich? The paucity of humans in this state, she writes, is “incredibly refreshing”.  Erdrich’s name alone evokes a feeling about place, particularly this place, that one instantly understands from her literary point of view. Vermont’s entry is entirely penned in a cartoon strip by (quick—guess) Alison Bechdel. And she captures it perfectly. Weiland and Wilsey have done a masterful job of casting writer to State; each writer’s style evokes perfectly the state-of-mind, if you will, of the State they are assigned.

AMAZON

by Karen Zarker

17 Dec 2008

I know someone who collects wine as an ‘investment’. Saving a bottle for years seems like a waste of a perfectly good wine to me, and not nearly as fun as enjoying this afternoon’s purchase with this evening’s dinner. On the rare occasion when I pour wine-turned-vinegar down the drain, I know my retirement savings aren’t going down the drain with it. But some find the lure of an ideal irresistible, and thus allow themselves to be transported to a drunken realm well past the time when others had switched to coffee. Wallace’s erudite approach to otherwise intelligent minds that have fermented a little too long on an elusive bottle of Cháteau Lafite Bordeaux purportedly owned by Thomas Jefferson (a man whom, it seems, wasn’t one to save a bottle for tomorrow that could be enjoyed today, either) is wickedly delightful cultural history best enjoyed with a spicy Shiraz.

AMAZON

by Zeth Lundy

17 Dec 2008

Elvis becomes the other Elvis for the third episode of his weekly show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), performing covers of “Mystery Train” and “Baby, Let’s Play House”. Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher are the rock-solid rhythm section, while nimble-fingered James Burton (formerly of Presley’s TCB band in the 1970s) handles lead guitar duties. The band shines, especially Burton, whose licks ripple up and down the guitar’s neck; Costello, on the other hand, takes too many liberties with the lyric’s phrasing, eventually throwing Faragher’s harmony vocal for a loop.

Despite its somewhat wobbly course, “Mystery Train” is an apt way to welcome native Arkansan and former President Bill Clinton, who speaks with Costello at length about music, politics, and the ways in which the two subjects often intersect.

by Sarah Zupko

17 Dec 2008

This is my pick for the finest DVD collection of the year. American Experience’s biographies of U.S. presidents are engrossing, definitive, illuminating and often surprising. You’ll learn more history in the shortest period of time by watching these shows than virtually anything else you can do. It’s the perfect gift for both the history buff and the political junkie, as well as for those who want to better understand the American present and how it has developed. That didn’t mean to sound stuffy either. These documentaries are seriously addicting, filled with stories that grab you more than the latest prime time soap, while being healthy brain food at the same time.

AMAZON

by Bill Gibron

16 Dec 2008

Who, exactly, is the audience for a World War II film in which a certain group of Nazis are portrayed as the good guys? Do children really want family films that tackle tough speculative themes and/or adult-level sexual innuendo and violence? Does quirk and idiosyncrasy taken to outrageous, Herculean limits have a viewership, and does a comic who once did exaggerated mugging to massive box office notoriety fit into today’s Apatow oriented bromance slacker laughfest world. These are the questions critics contemplate while sitting in a screening, bored out of their mind and/or wondering if what they are watching will ever see the light of a legitimate commercial day. It happens more times than we’d care to admit, actually.

This past week, Delgo, an incredibly mediocre CG cartoon, earned the distinction of being the lowest earning film in wide release EVER! According to Yahoo Movies, the fantasy’s “two people per theater per showing” extrapolation marks it as the biggest bomb ever. Yes aside from the movie’s obvious creative and entertainment limitations, was there ever going to be an major audience for shell-less turtles taking on pissed off dragonflies, their race-baiting battles resulting in near genocide levels of death? Sure, it was a labor of love for the filmmakers (close to a decade in the contemplating and making) and an attempt to wrestle the animation mantle from the likes of Disney, Pixar, Fox and Dreamworks, but did the six screenwriters - SIX - ever think that the material they were marketing had limited to almost no appeal?

It’s the same with Charlie Kaufman’s sad, funny, bodily fluid and illness obsessed solo writing/directing debut, Synecdoche, New York. Beginning with the linguistical twist in the title, and moving through the life of a self-absorbed, unlucky in anything remotely related to interpersonal affection, theatrical director, we get industry in-jokes, spiraling self-referentialism, allusions to death and the meaninglessnes of life, and some random shots of stool samples - all colors. Expanding on the absurdist surreality of his previous work with Spike Jonze - Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. - and Michel Gondry - Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - it’s the rare mad genius that makes such strangeness appear to create some manner of sense. But beyond the college age noncomformist who believes that all cinema exists either to serve the Establishment or speak to the medium as meaningful art, who exactly is going to line up to see this?

Clearly, some studios recognize the value in demographically specific targeting. Twilight is considered a major hit, tapping into the already flush Mamma Mia! pool of unfulfilled spinsters, merry widows, bored housewives, and hormonally overcharged tween to teen girls. Disney could put its name on a pseudo-snuff film with anthropomorphic household items acting out revenge fantasies and a horde of blinkered boomers would drag their aging offspring to see it. Tyler Perry, in true Gospel roadshow circuiting, continues to give the underserved urban crowd his various takes on “black is bankable” morality plays, while subgenre horror still rakes in the adolescent allowances. But there are those who take the concept too far.

With Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Dreamworks decided that the best way to handle the return of its quartet of clueless globetrotting zoo animals was to take them back to the land of their ancestral birth, and then toss the entire book of bad movie clichés at the camera. The amount of forced laughter coming from the preprogrammed throngs is matched only by the rampant use of fear and danger as a plot device, occasional lapses into racially inappropriate stereotyping, and a weird, almost pornographic reliance on passion to sell any kind of sentiment. Let’s face it, this is a movie where a 3D giraffe wants to nuzzle up to a plus-size Hippo who herself has the hots for a deep voiced, awkwardly muscled member of her own species. Ew.

In other instances, star power (or the presumed last bastions of same), is the implied reason. While he stands somewhere between his former superstar glories and a bumbling buffoon leaping on alarmed talk show hosts’ couches, Tom Cruise is still considered something of an international icon. Yet after the one-two thud of Mission: Impossible III and the horrific Lions for Lambs, the former Top gunner was clearly looking to re-elevate his floundering fame. While the cameo in Tropic Thunder was a brilliant sideways shift, the hero laden loopiness of his turn as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in Bryan Singer’s Third Reich thriller Valkyrie seems like a stretch. First, those in the audience familiar with history will experience little or no suspense, and while the first half of the film plays like a crackerjack espionage actioner, the last 45 minutes are Fail Safe shuttled over into an “is he or isn’t he” deathwatch for a supposedly assassinated Fuhrer.

Jim Carrey has also been riding the white horse toward commercial obscurity in the last few years. Outside of the Lemony Snicket film from 2004, and his turn as the title elephant in the animated Horton Hears a Who, the rubberfaced funnyman has starred in a comedic dud (Fun with Dick and Jane) and a hackneyed horror film (The Number 23). Yes Man will be hailed by some as a return to form, but the interesting premise - Carrey is a man who must always say “Yes” to any opportunity, no matter how outrageous, as part of a self-help seminar promise - wants to be Liar, Liar without the magic realism. Instead, the idea of self-discovery and the potential in PMA is constantly countermanded by moments of certified Carrey craziness and action scenes which seem oddly pointless.

In both cases, Hollywood clearly hopes that, like muscle memory or the maxim regarding riding a bike, audiences won’t forget what made Cruise and Carrey ‘80s/‘90s moneymaking behemoths and flock back to the Cineplex in cash flush droves. Yet neither movie really offers the predisposed their Benjamins worth. Yes Man will be a hit since it tricks the viewer into thinking its more of an Ace Ventura styled romp than it really is, while Valkyrie will get some initial interest, before word of mouth undermines its spoiler-stoked backlash. And again, the question becomes - who thought these films would find their audience. Something like Che, or the Brad Pitt epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stand as clear cinematic triumphs, but do mainstream moviegoers really want to see three to four hour films as dense, directorial showcases?

From little kids dying in concentration camps to horndog teens having sex with former war criminals, from 100 minutes of people getting shot in the face to laborious love scenes between actors with no chemistry whatsoever, Tinsel Town seems stunted in how to make meaningful films that also support a sense of entertainment and enjoyment. One should never watch a movie wondering who is the aimed for audience, and will said spectators respond. In a business that is already a big fat gamble, it seems like Hollywood is recklessly rolling the dice over and over again. Oddly enough, ‘craps’ appears to be an appropriate sentiment/metaphor when all is said and done.

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