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Monday, Dec 31, 2007

Don’t act too shocked but it turns out your non-friends at the RIAA want you to know that copying any CD’s that you buy to your computer ain’t legal.  While it’s not the focus of their lawsuits, they’re starting to get the word out that you’re engaging in criminal activity whenever you do this, as they spew in this Washington Post article.  Why these scumbags haven’t filed suits against the software companies that make this possible is something to ponder- shouldn’t Microsoft, Winamp, Apple and others be liable or at least be threatened to be dragged into court for making ripping possible?  Don’t bet on it- the RIAA typically act like cowards, going after individuals in their lawsuits rather than large, deep-pocketed companies.  As the article notes “... for those old media to survive, they must adapt, finding new business models and new, compelling content to offer.  The RIAA’s legal crusade against its customers is a classic example of an old media company clinging to a business model that has collapsed.”


Speaking of new models, Billboard has an interesting article where a group of lawyers evaluate the new 360 contracts that labels have been cooking up to get a piece of the touring and merchandising pie as part of artists’ contacts.  Needless to say, they don’t think that these contacts are all peaches and cream and that artists need to be savvy before they sign away anything.


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Sunday, Dec 30, 2007


It will be remembered as the year when past geniuses (The Coen Brothers, Sidney Lumet) made astounding comebacks, while others (Francis Ford Coppola) merely continued to slip and stumble. It will be the time when the ongoing writer’s strike threatened to close down the industry come Summer blockbuster time - or destroy the union in the process. The typical topic areas - family dysfunction, crime and punishment - found new and novel ways of expressing their ancient Greek drama dynamics, and blood flowed freely from barber’s razors and a despotic oil baron’s temperament. All in all, 2007 was an astounding year in film. Too bad we’re about to look at this baby’s messy, muck filled diaper.


Many of the nominees for the year’s worst derive their awfulness from a purposeful demographic pose. Apparently, making entertainment for the underage crowd gives Hollywood hacks a creativity migraine. At least half of the movies that made the list are pre/post tween terrors, geared so far down on the intellectual paradigm that they battle the Earth’s magnetic core for control of its gravitational pull. The rest of the dross is derived from unfunny comedies, unexciting thrillers, and the kind of sickening schmaltz that leaves many a viewer in a cinematic sugar coma. While direct to DVD offerings can be far, far worse (look here for some incredible foul examples), you’d think a major mainstream corporate media giant would know better. Looking at the 10 worst films of 2007, that’s clearly not the case, beginning with:


#10 - Hitman
Hitman overstays its welcome from the moment the ammunition starts flying, and never finds a satisfying way of winning us back. It’s dry and dour, so full of itself that you’d swear it was a college athlete. In a genre not known for its subtlety, cinematic tact, innovation (unless you’re John Woo), or lack of contrivance, this vacant videogame adaptation is a barely passable poster child. You’d figure a movie with such a title should revel in its gory, gratuitous killings. Sadly, the filmmakers don’t comprehend the fun in firepower. Instead, they keep pushing things into political intrigue mode – and in these days of uncertain international ideology, a From Russia with Love storyline feels so Tom Clancy.



#9 - Underdog
Underdog is so piecemeal it should come with a roll of duct tape. It’s so desperate to be everything to everyone that it ends up being very little to nobody in particular. Scripted by a committee that obviously didn’t contain a logician, a comedian, or someone adept at characterization, what we wind up with is a one trick dog and pony show without the little horse. It’s hard to figure out what’s more insulting about this post-millennial live action update - the way it talks down to, and then plays perfunctorily to, its intended audience, or the opening credits callback to the original series, complete with material showing the classic cartoon icons we’ve come to know and love.



#8 - Shrek The Third
Though it tries to deliver something new this third time around, the truth is that this tired tre-quels narrative more or less sits there, lifeless and limp, waiting for the already creaky cogs in its comedy machine to make up for the lack of complexity. Indeed, this type of clothesline yarn is ripe for many a hilarious animated set piece, but the quartet of screenwriters can find very little to do with it. Indeed, lame rap lingo and prevalent pop culture references that seemed to work before now come off as amateurish and pat. Even the standard star stunt casting has been lowered a couple of notches, resulting in good but generic voices looking to enliven things. They don’t.



#7 - Mr. Bean’s Holiday
Physical comedy is officially dead, and Rowan Atkinson killed it. Well, not the actor himself, but his inexcusable desire to keep destroying the reputation of his resplendent Mr. Bean with all manner of mediocre motion picture incarnations. That sunny British series was a class act of timing and treatment. Now, on celluloid for a second time, it’s nothing more than crass kid fodder, a G-rated response to the parental cries of media inappropriateness. Once he was a mean spirited plank who saw the entire world as worthy of his slightly askew scorn. But now he’s been transformed into a gangly, goofball Gamera, friend to everyone except the sideswiped member of the audience who didn’t see such a tiresome trainwreck coming.



#6 - The Heartbreak Kid 2007
This is a disaster, an unmitigated humorless horror that never once plays as raunchy or as outrageous as it thinks it is. Realizing that their patented gross out scheme has long been usurped by others more adept at said scatology (read: Judd Apatow), the Farrelly Brothers have managed to make the worst film of their careers – and that’s saying a lot. Using extremes like excuses and shouting where a script should be, this guaranteed to please the least demanding of audiences atrocity is a perfect illustration for why Mr. Freaks and Geeks and his party posse had to step in and save cinematic comedy. Without their Superbad life support, an effort like this would have been fatal.



#5 - August Rush
Heavy-handed, undeniably saccharine, and about as magical as a clown at a kid’s party, August Rush is an implausible, pus-covered pixie stick. It’s Oliver without the twist, a well-meaning lament fashioned out of arrogance, artificiality, and artlessness. This ‘adult fairytale’ is one of those films that announces its archetypal intentions from the very start. It salutes you with schmaltz and then turns up the convolutions until the clichés no longer have room to breath. Eventually, they die off in waves of unexplored potentiality, resulting in a literal ghost of a film. There are times when this maudlin muck is so lightweight and wispy, we fear a sudden sneeze from the audience will cause the screen to go blank.



#4 - I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry
No one in Hollywood ever went broke underestimating the entertainment taste of the American public. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is proof of such a sentiment. Geared directly toward the lowest common denominator, with occasional side treks into PC-lite pronouncements of tolerance and acceptance, this is comedy as callous homophobia. In a current social climate where same sex marriage has been bandied about as a powerful political and pundit tool, to treat the issue as the basis for a frat house level of funny business is disturbing. But then to watch as the plot purposefully backtracks in order to make amends for such lampoon-based insensitivity is disingenuous at best.



#3 - Mr. Woodcock
With the proper, no holds barred approach melded with a mean-spirited, manipulative script, this could have worked. But because of a preemptive PG-13 mandate from the studio, and a lack of any real intelligence or insight, this potential testosterone-laced standoff ends up a panty waisted wuss-out. It’s not just that the film is painfully unfunny – it fails to even understand why its jokes don’t begin to work. Had the movie spent more time in the setup, showing John Farley as a sad little boy in a constant war with the evil and uncouth PE pig, any payoff would have some context. But all we get are lame ‘lame’ kid riffs, followed by more dull Wood-cockiness.



#2 - Alvin and the Chipmunks
Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less. It is nothing more than an excuse for overpaid computer geeks to render quasi-realistic wildlife. While it only plays the fart and poop card once each, this is still a juvenile effort helmed by individuals who should really know ‘funny’ better. Substituting stupidity for smarts and silliness for satire, we wind up with the kind of mindless box office babysitter that lets inattentive parents feel safe about dragging their kids to the Cineplex. And with box office grosses well beyond $100 million, it’s clear that many are taking the ersatz au pair bait.



#1 - Norbit
Like a Jerry Lewis vehicle gone gangrenous, Norbit is a nauseating mess. It finds Eddie Murphy once again treading water, working within the same lame stunt gimmickry that resuscitated his lagging star quality some 11 years ago. Back then, his multi-character turn in The Nutty Professor actually had some intelligence and humorous heft (excuse the pun) behind it. The remake of the classic farce contained heart, insight, and just a smattering of the scatological material that usually mires most post-modern comedies. But by the time the inevitable sequel came along, the crappy Klumps proved that the ‘man of many make-ups’ conceit had really run its course.


Now, seven scattered years later, Murphy is back under latex and foam, reduced to race baiting and egregious ethnic slurs for his supposed satiric insight. Norbit is so bereft of laughs that it actually owes the cosmos a couple dozen cleverness IOUs. What passes for jokes are obvious swipes on color, creed, and context, and the physical slapstick is so outrageously amplified that it plays like a metaphysical Merrie Melody on massive stupidity steroids. From the opening moment where an infant is randomly tossed out of a car, to the sequence where the rotund Rasputia gets scrimshawed in the blowhole (don’t ask), the basic brutality and aggressive abuse garners little except contempt.


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Sunday, Dec 30, 2007

Yesterday, as I walked to the other side of the neighborhood to get my hair cut, I noticed that a little independent coffee shop that had opened only a few months ago was already closed. This didn’t surprise me at all; it was more of a whimsical notion than a coherent business. They sold hip, old-timey nostalgic things like campy paperbacks and candy in 1950s era packaging, and they also sold homemade pies at exorbitant prices. It had two tables in the back and one in front, not sufficient room for anyone to loiter comfortably, but enough where you were made to feel that someone ought to be but wasn’t. And the barristas, if you’d call them that, were generally on their cell phones or in the midst of conversation among themselves instead of dispensing service. And its location, sort of on the way to the subway for that side of the neighborhood, was adequate, but not prime. Maybe, if this article by Taylor Clark from Slate is to be taken as gospel, they needed to be even closer to the Starbucks that’s on the corner a few blocks away.


Clark argues that far from putting mom-and-pop coffee shops out of business, Starbucks teaches local customers to elevate their tastes and to find it reasonable to spend a lot on coffee.


Each new Starbucks store created a local buzz, drawing new converts to the latte-drinking fold. When the lines at Starbucks grew beyond the point of reason, these converts started venturing out—and, Look! There was another coffeehouse right next-door!


The reason Starbucks doesn’t obliterate its competition the way Wal-Mart does, is that it has far fewer overhead advantages, and the ones it implements (cheap, automatic espresso machines) degrades its product. Often, a chief aspect of the service it sells—convenience—is spoiled by its own popularity. And we all know how sentimental latte liberals can be about “anti-corporate” businesses—independent retailers and the like. The presence of Starbucks right next door allows such people to express their political views with much more salience when they actively reject Starbucks for the small-time coffee shop, assuming all the time how clever they are and how much better the service will be from the local people who truly appreciate it.


I admit that such thinking drove me from my local Starbucks to the now defunct independent competitor. I had received a few lukewarm cups from Starbucks (and didn’t have the time on the way to work to go back to the store, wait in line, and ask for a new one) and I remain fed up with Starbucks’ employees inability to properly prepare an Iced Americano, so that it doesn’t turn into a piss-warm puddle of watered-down espresso. I figured the new local place would do a better job out of pride. As Clark notes, you don’t beat Starbucks on ambiance but by providing a better product. But the local shop ultimately failed in this, serving their own lukewarm brew and sometimes making me wait as the counter person carried out their private conversations leisurely rather than waiting on me. Maybe I’m sensitive (i.e. paranoid), but I hate when clerks are laughing with their friends as I approach. I hate disrupting a good time, especially when all I want is what the establishment is presumed to exist to provide. So I stopped going there and made another effort to get up earlier to have coffee at home in the morning. (Clark cites this shocking statistic: only 10 percent of coffee shops fail. That confirms that my neighborhood java entrepreneurs were unusually misguided.)


So, though little public failures always tend to depress me, I wasn’t exactly sad to see this locally owned coffee shop fold. Instead, it was a reminder that I shouldn’t make the mistake of being sentimental about mom-and-pop stores. It’s the same temptation as being sentimental about small-town life, while forgetting the stultifying conformity and the routine invasions of one’s privacy. One benefit of, say, going to Starbucks is that you preserve your anonymity, which is tantamount to remaining basically equal in the eyes of the clerks (though the tall guy with the glasses at the Starbucks on my corner remembers me and gets my small coffee ready without my having to ask—this is more than the local place would do). Mom-and-pop places are much more prone to the petty graft that comes from familiarity and small-scale aspirations—extorting tips, using variable, spontaneous pricing to take advantage of neophytes, and so on. Local places will play favorites with customers, decide who belongs and who doesn’t, and work in various subtle and unsubtle ways to exclude those deemed undesirable. Some people will get “the nice guy discount” (if they have the gumption to ask for it) and others will get stonewalled mysteriously as they wait to be helped.


Ultimately, it depends on the disposition of particular employees how one will be treated in a shop, but national chains are more likely to insist on uniform service apart from local considerations. Sentimentality leads us to believe that those considerations are to our favor, are the sorts of things that knit us into a community. We forget that they can work the other way, and remind us of our arbitrary exclusion.


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Saturday, Dec 29, 2007


Believe it or not, making worst-of lists is a heck of a lot harder than making best-of determinations. The explanation for why may seem specious at first, but follow along anyway. You see, something good stands out for numerous reasons – brilliant direction, monumental acting, a quick and brainy script, an approach to a subject that is fresh and dynamic. Even when that story seems similar and the elements reek of the routine, energy and mood, tone and treatment can all aid in a film’s final aesthetic determination. But with the bad, the facets are sadly familiar – boring execution, non-existing cinematics, lame, ludicrous writing and performances that range from problematic to pathetic. These aggravating aspects never change, they never alter their underachieving patchiness. A crappy effort is a crappy effort, each one feeling similarly unworthy and unacceptable.


So when faced with the mountain of mediocrity a DVD critic is exposed to each year, finding a mere 10 that turn your stomach is an exercise in remembrance and repulsion. Looking back means identifying works that wasted your time, revisiting filmmakers whose arrogance blinded them to their true lack of artistic acumen, and generally re-experiencing the pain of time lost, sensibilities shaken, and interest waned. Again, the same rules apply here as with the Films You’ve Never Heard Of category. The movie itself can be from any year – the digital version, however, had to arrive on the medium in the past 12 months. For the most part, we are dealing with dull, lifeless movie macabre. Between Joe Bob Briggs’ famous three “Bs” – blood, breasts and beasts” – there’s enough genre junk on hand to send horror back to its pre-Gothic roots.


So grab hold of your aesthetic and wade in cautiously. SE&L‘s 10 Worst DVDs of 2007 have been known to drown even the most adventurous cinematic swimmer:


#10 - Mummy Maniac
At first glance, Mummy Maniac looks like your standard serial killer crap. After watching it, you realize it’s just another dismal digital excuse for dread. It’s the product of first time filmmaker Max Nikoff and his ongoing association with none other than Ulli Lommel (the direct to DVD cousin of fellow German joke Uwe Boll). Reduced to churning out horrendous hack fright flicks with all the panache of a heart punch since his ‘80s heyday, the aesthetic acorn hasn’t fallen far from the offal oak Lommel has spawned. Nikoff, who worked on a few of his mentor’s miserable motion pictures, produces equally worthless junk, excuses for entertainment that are neither clever nor competent.


#9 - Gag
Sigh. This is what it’s come to. This is what dedicated fright fans, supporters of the genre critics love to hate and mainstream audiences love to marginalize, have to put up with. Gag is an appropriate title for this offensive little load. The entendre applies to a number of B&D ball stoppers used, the nauseating nature of our murderer’s methods, and our intestinal fortitude once this 78 minute stool sample has finally passed. In a world where some manner of god would step in and stop such unimaginative copycatting, this Sawstel slop wouldn’t exist. Clearly, said creator is on extended holiday as Gag is more than happy to deliver scene after scene of mind-numbing gorno mediocrity.



#8 - Mad Cowgirl
So pretentious that free-verse reading Goth poets are pissed off at its affectations, Mad Cowgirl is an overly arch load of bovine bollocks. It reeks of the ambitions of its self-important creator, crashing and burning like any good train wreck should. At any given moment, this dung pretends to be a sobering drama, an erotic thriller, a dark comedy, a character study, a social commentary, a harangue on the human consumption of red meat, and a mannered martial-arts homage. Unfortunately, our director can’t find his way through or out of any of these concepts, resulting in a movie that frequently plays like the cinematic equivalent of channel surfing.



#7 - Creepshow III
When you want horror, go to the people who know it best. For example, when you’re out to make a film called Creepshow III, based on a previous pair of cinematic installments created by macabre maestro Stephen King and terror titan George Romero, don’t send in a couple of hacks whose main credits consist of some under the radar episodic television work. Yet the directing team of James Glenn Dudelson and Ana Clavell were given the call. Responsible for some incredibly inept onscreen shivers (Museum of the Dead, Day of the Dead 2: Contagion), after watching their work in this abysmal DVD tre-quel, it’s clear that neither knows the first thing about delivering fear factors.



#6 - Curse of the Zodiac
Make no mistake about it - this is one of the worst movies ever made. Actually, comparing this crudely conceived compost heap with cinema and the infamous litany of lame motion pictures does a disservice to both entities. Rare is the filmmaker that finds Ed Wood or Dale Restingini readily capable of mocking him, but ex-Rainer Werner Fassbinder pupil Ulli Lommel easily earns said metaphysical mudslinging. This senseless exercise in celluloid hubris wants to bring a new perspective to the now notorious ‘60s/‘70s unsolved killing spree. Apparently, such a revamp needs to involve inconsistent period details, incredibly bad adlibbed acting, and a killer whose externalized internal monologue sounds a lot like that YouTube boob known as the Insult Alien.



#5 - Bizarre Lusts of a Sexual Deviant
Part pointless pornography, part attempted psychological character study, first-time filmmaker Zert Sineca’s cinematic stasis is all tease and very little release. It prepares its audience for 70 minutes of mind-numbing sleaze and ends up delivering a little over an hour of awfulness. It would be nice if the director had come up with some occasionally clever dialogue, or valid insight into the understanding of the sexually depraved mind. But all we get is another of those time warp titles that refract the passage of minutes and turn this entire entertainment experience into the cinematic version of a Depression-era danceathon. It’s as physically and emotionally tiring as those torturous excuses for 1930’s escapism.



#4 - Exterminating Angels
Mix one part David Lynch, a few unhealthy jiggers of Zalmon King, a quart of the typical French film flesh peddling, and a decidedly asexual approach to softcore, and you’d get just a small portion of this preposterous self-righteous smut stupidity. It’s not just that we could care less about fictional filmmaker Francois, his fascination with troubled actresses Charlotte, Julie, and Stephanie, or the preposterous moments when the foursome flits off to a hotel room to “rehearse” their “screen tests.” No, this movie hopes to probe the problematic mind of the female species. What it winds up offering is nothing more than endless sequences of existential conversation followed by moments of babe/babe finger-banging.



#3 - Amateur Porn Star Killer
If you have the audacity to scream “snuff film” you better have the cinematic huevos to deliver on such crass carnival barking. No, we don’t want to see you actually murdering your neighbor/spouse/significant other on screen. What we’re talking about here is realizing and fully understanding the vacuous reasons why such an exploitation non-reality remains a viable urban legend. Couple Shane Ryan (co-writer/director/star) and Michiko Jimenez (co-writer/star), think they have found a novel, neo-Blair Witch way to make such a dull first person POV slasher experiment resonate with retail possibilities. Mixing borderline XXX gratuity with a pseudo-realistic recreation of your typical pedophile/victim playdate, the results are horrific, sickening, sad, uncompromising - and impossible to enjoy.



#2 - Oil and Water
According to the old proverb, oil and water do not mix. Well, after watching the independent mess named after such a sentiment, it is clear that writer/actor/director Peter LaVilla and talent do not gel either. Sloppy, stupid, and without a single redeeming cinematic characteristic, this supposed romantic comedy is about as funny as a foot rash and as sentimental as a slap in the face. You can see what LaVilla is striving for: he wants love to bloom between two impossible egotists. Unfortunately, the filmmaker makes his leads into the most mean-spirited, miserable mofos ever to stain a screen. It’s like cheering for Bill O’Reilly and Anne Coulter to settle down and start spawning.



#1 - Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door is a frighteningly irredeemable film. It’s light years beyond any so-called ‘torture porn’ and is so repugnant and reprehensible that Eli Roth would probably disown it outright. This doesn’t make it an unprofessional or talent-free experience, just an excruciating, nauseating, and distasteful one. With its ‘based on true events’ motivation and exploitation like desire to investigate the most vile of human behaviors, this is a drama that gives off significantly mixed signals. It’s like Stand by Me in a slaughterhouse, a retro coming of age where acts of inhuman brutality substitute for sipping beer and sneaking a peek at a girlie mag.


There will be critics who compliment the ‘brave’ performances all around, who point to Blythe Auffarth’s hapless heroine Meg and Blanche Baker’s completely wicked witch Ruth and froth at how daring and uncompromising their acting is. But in the end, it’s all in service of a sleazy, incomplete narrative that never explains the dementia behind the disturbing imagery. Instead, we are supposed to be shocked at the numerous atrocities (the plot is based on the horrible case from the 1950s involving the torture and murder of teen Sylvia Likens by her clearly insane Aunt Gertrude Baniszewski) and marvel at how artfully it’s all been done. Instead, we wonder how something this sordid ever got made. It’s beyond salvation or explanation.


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Saturday, Dec 29, 2007





 




 



Do humans have efficacy? The ability to exert influence over the world around us?


An important philosophical question—one asked through the ages. Inherent in the debate about whether it is structure or action—external forces or free will—that determine our fate. But also a question that informs the “great person/on the shoulder of giants” versus “worker bee/group process” debate, applied to both intellectual production and societal evolution.


“Do humans have efficacy?” is a question at the heart of game theory and it also has, over the years, surfaced in fields as far-ranging as the biological and chemical sciences, physics, history, politics, and even, at times, economics.


It is also a question that can be asked when viewing movies such as the one referenced in this entry’s title. Well, for that matter . . . so, too, in just about every Hollywood movie currently produced. Charlie Wilson’s War, No Country for Old Men, Beowulf—you name it. How can a plot live without efficacious humans, natural forces (or sorceresses)? Without one or more characters exerting influence on someone or thing, plots tend to stall and cash registers tend not to ring, accordingly. So, according to Hollywood, humans have efficacy.


Dissolve to final curtain. End of discussion.


But what of real life? Well, that was the question I asked the day after I saw I am Legend, which was the night before I returned to my temporary home back in the U.S. The night that I shot hoops at my sports club.


“Do I have efficacy?”


A question asked not because I couldn’t get the ball to fit often enough in the basket; but because of a person I encountered. Quite by accident and then with not such a thrilling answer in response.


The story goes like this . . .


 


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