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Wednesday, Feb 6, 2008


They say that successful movie marketing is an art. If it is, it’s one of the blackest. Nothing against advertisers in general, or the creative individuals forced to turn turkey loaf into Thanksgiving, but creating buzz is a bifurcated saber. On the one hand, you have the easy sell, the material or individual with inherent pull and established popularity. All you have to do is say the name, suggest the situation, and potential revenue streams find their inner customer clicked over into “sold” mold. It’s the very definition of a no-brainer - the mindless, lemming like “Yes” to a Madison Avenue SOS.


But then there are the harder sells - the untested talent, the complicated project, the demographically indeterminate subset. For these amorphous entities, these hard to compartmentalize and conceptualize beings, no amount of Q rating returns or focus group grading can provide a window into its retail viability. For the copywriter or the art director, the minds paid to pull this unreasonable rabbit out of its wonderland-like hole, it’s all about the angle, the dirty back road in. If they can just find some path to the PR Promised Land, it’s another unexpectedly successful campaign and a key to the unisex Executive washroom.


So it’s clear that when faced with the prospect of selling Malcolm Lee’s Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins to a comedy weary (and wary) viewership, Universal’s crew was more than a little flummoxed. The upcoming comedy has a cast comprised of several recognizable and established actor/stand-ups (Martin Lawrence, Mo’Nique, Cedric the Entertainer), a complementary list of fine A-list names (James Earl Jones, Margaret Avery, Michael Clarke Duncan), and a few scene-stealing surprises (Michael Epps) to flesh out its funny business. With a script that successfully balances the broadest of physical and shtick humor with lots of familial heart and insight, the studio must have sensed it had a winner on its hands.


But how to get that across to a public poised to hate almost anything that purports to make them laugh. After a decade of gross out gag fests, a combination of limp ideas and even lamer execution, anything without the name “Apatow” attached to it was seen as a risk. Add to that the clear ethnic angle and suddenly, you’re stuck. Between Tyler Perry’s “Go with God” restaged plays, and the formulaic African American anarchy which substitutes crudeness for something clever, the selling points were stuck between a social Scylla and Charybdis. So how did they resolve this dilemma? They didn’t. They took the incredibly easy way out and decided to position this film as a scatological slice of slapstick.


Frankly, nothing could be farther from the truth. In a year already overloaded with unexceptional fare, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is a surprisingly rich and rewarding experience. Certainly, Mo’Nique and Cedric trade on the material that made them famous, and director Lee resorts to outrageous physical humor to drive some of his less important points, but at the oversized soul of this movie is a clear message about embracing who you are, forgiving people for the past, and learning to accept the love…and lesser qualities, of those you grew up with. Pointed, insightful, and slightly sloppy around the edges, it’s a wholly entertaining and enjoyable work.


Yet to watch the trailers, you’d think it was nothing but tawdry toilet humor, riotous roughhousing, and lots and lots of hard-R retorts. Of course, much of that comes directly from the comedians cast. All of the professional stand-ups present are notorious for their potty mouthed performances, and throughout the course of the film, several euphemisms and other expletive like comments are heard. But for every bit of blue humor, material one imagines resulted directly from the adlibbing tendencies present, Lee made sure to include a moment of clarity, a sequence where common sense takes the place of crudeness. And the pratfalls are saved for a couple of over the top sequences where our filmmaker lets the anarchy get out of hand. But it’s hardly the main point of the movie.


No, the marketers of Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins obviously believed that audiences - specifically viewers of color - were not sophisticated enough to embrace a full blown family comedy. Even the PG-13 rating reveals a limited use of the FCC’s favorite slang (the F-bomb gets dropped once). Like politicians who believe that pandering is the best way to tap into the electorate, Hollywood is convinced that certain racial profiling perfectly mirrors their merchandising. A slacker flick has to have indie rock and some petulant pop culture quips. A RomCom must retread some Tin Pan Alley classic and contain at least one shot of our stars making cow eyes at each other. And apparently, African Americans need sophistication spoon fed to them in vaudevillian like volleys of mugging.


Or maybe the motive is even more sinister. Maybe, in order to sell the film beyond those predetermined to see it, Tinsel Town takes the intolerant approach. While someone more scholarly and sophisticated will have to determine if the Roscoe Jenkins trailer is racist (instead of merely misguided), it is clear that to an audience unfamiliar with the work of those in the cast, stereotypes abound: the big mouthed black woman with shaving cream on her face; the fast talking hustler; the “white” acting prodigal; the various references to other culturally specific signposts. Like a visual reference guide to the experience about to be offered, the trailer takes a road no one should travel and traverses it with hamfisted foolishness. 


Again, the question is why? Why is the film being marketed this way? And again, what does that say about the intended audience on both sides of the social spectrum? If Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins wasn’t so obvious in the way it addresses its product, if the movie wasn’t so different than the non-character based chaos shown in the advertisement, maybe it wouldn’t matter. But Tootsie didn’t trade exclusively on its man in drag dimension, and Knocked Up acknowledged that there was more to its scatological tirades than farts and frat boyishness.


Yet somehow, when the skin tone shifts, so does the subjectivity. Instead, everything gets processed through a veiled worldview that’s long stopped representing the community at large. There is true diversity in the African American community, an element that Malcolm Lee’s movie clearly embraces. Too bad the rest of the entertainment arena can’t see it. Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is indeed a good movie. Perhaps it’s time Hollywood relied on truth, instead of trickery, to enlighten its customers. Imagine how novel that would be.


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Wednesday, Feb 6, 2008

It’s 5am and I’m about ready to get on the Maiden Bus—a three-hour journey to the city for the first Australia Iron Maiden tour in more than 20 years. The nails are black, the head is partly shaved, and I’m feeling the part.


We’ve been delving into all-things-Maiden, my partner and I, since we bought our tickets nearly six months ago. Who knew there was so much out there? Live and doco DVDs, bootleg CDs, even a comprehensive library.


I thought today, I’d show off some of the best Maiden-based works and heavy metal tomes. For the metalhead in us all…


 

Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal
by Ian Christe
HarperCollins Publishers
February 2004


Considered the definitive history of the first 30 years of heavy metal, this one is filled with interviews with members of Black Sabbath, Metallica, Judas Priest, Twisted Sister, Kiss, Megadeth, Public Enemy, and others. From the B&N review: ‘Though Christe draws some sharp distinctions between and among subgenres, his basic position is that all heavy metal is good until proven bad. “Though metal is larger than life,” he writes, “it ultimately comes from life: inflaming the intellect, shaking the senses and stroking the libido more completely than any sound before.’


 

Run to the Hills: The Official Biography of Iron Maiden
by Mick Wall
Sanctuary Publishing


It’s unauthorized, but my partner tells me it’s excellent. The book charts Maiden’s rise from London’s East End to the biggest metal band on the planet. It covers the band’s highs and gets quite dark when exploring the lows. The best thing about this one, I hear, is it’s humour. It’s quite a fun read, channeling the band’s own style of dry humour.


 

Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal
by David Konow
Crown Publishing Group
November 2002
 
Konow is a Guitar World writer and his metal fandom seems to make him a perfect candidate for exploring all aspects of the genre and its subgenres. From the metal Maiden explosion through the era of the monster metal ballad, hair rock, and all that came after, Konow takes us through it all. I don’t agree with all of his assumptions, and I don’t know if Bon Jovi was ever really a metal band, but there are some fun tidbits here.


 

Too Fast for Love: Heavy Metal Portraits
by David Yellen (Photographer), Chuck Klosterman (Introduction), Chuck Klosterman
powerHouse Books
September 2004


Dave Yellen’s longing for days gone by when metal was huge and metal hair was bigger still is pretty much exactly what we’re experiencing this morning. With word that Maiden are to be performing nothing but hits and other classics tonight, we’re expecting flashbacks that hit so hard and so deep that we may actually go back in time. Yellen’s book makes us feel like we’re not so alone, that perhaps not everyone was oh-so happy to see the spandex era end. There’s a lot to be learned about bands and band politics here, as Yellen wins the trust and friendship of some major metal names.


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Wednesday, Feb 6, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Radar Bros.
Auditorium (full album) [Streaming]


Radar Bros. - When Cold Air Goes to Sleep


British Sea Power
Waving Flags [MP3]
     


British Sea Power - Waving Flags


The Two Man Gentlemen Band
Heavy Petting [MP3]
     


American Music Club
All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco [MP3]
     


Big Dipper
She’s Fetching [MP3] (Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology!, releasing 18 March on Merge)
     



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Tuesday, Feb 5, 2008


It’s time to stop hatin’ on Disney - not that they don’t still deserve a little manufactured wholesomeness dissing. Critics clamor over the retread sequelizing of classic titles, the cookie cutter entertainment options, and the long dead aesthetic of the corporate namesake, and still the House of Mouse thrives. Hot on the heels of the smash hit concert tour, Hannah Montana - aka Achy Breaky offspring Miley Cyrus, has broken box office records with the 3-D version of her syrup-strapped stage show, and everyone’s favorite organized opportunist couldn’t be happier. As a matter of fact, Disney has announced an extended theatrical run for the film, hoping to milk that cacophonous cash cow for all its pre-adolescent worth.


Now granted, there is nothing inherently wrong with what Montana/Cyrus represents. It’s yet another in a long line of tide pooling cultural waves, generational substrata that see certain heretofore unknown quantities leap up and grasp the pre-tween constituency. It represents the untenable trending, the post-Popcorn Report’s inability to gauge the ga-ga factor in the Double-O demo. Certainly, if someone could forecast which underage family fodder becomes the next Tickle Me Elmo, Drake Bell and Josh Peck would be on their fifth franchise effort. Kids are fickle, however, and they tend to run with the herd. Tell them that a brain addled bumpkin with limited life skills is the second coming of pop artistry, and it’s Britney/Hilary all over again.


So, naturally, we cast aspersion on the younger generation, wondering how cultural phenoms could go from the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys in 30 short years. Social fashions are gauged, the talent temperature is taken, and predictions are prepared. Then, seemingly out of the ether, an unfamiliar quantity grasps the short attention span of kid nation and a new fad is formed. Companies rush to capitalize, entertainment show tongues wag, and in the end, no one knows nothing, William Goldman style. Like any good social surfer, the entity rides the crest, establishes their potential staying power (or lack thereof) and then goes the way of the Big Kahuna, leaving room for the next mainstream mindboggler.


There’s another element here that’s equally aggressive, a facet that longs to see this latest bandwagon dismantled, burnt, and buried in salted earth so that it never has reason to reinvent or revive its fortunes. The aesthetic watchdogs, the so called connoisseurs who believe that opinion is fact and individual taste is a matter of group determination wince at the very suggestion that something like Hannah Montana is worthy of such acclaim. To them, it’s a creative Rapture, a moment when art is usurped by artifice to raise the routine and the redolent from the genre grave. It doesn’t matter if the no-frill filler makes millions of underdeveloped music lovers ecstatic - scholarship demands its intellectual pound of flesh, and there’s lots of pubescent baby fat to go around. 


But why blame the audience for the blanding of the medium when the true culprit is so bloody obvious - and remember, Disney is just responding to some already present fiscal wind. No, the true adversaries in this nightmare of nonthreatening-ness are parents - specifically the generation of guardians who grew up in the ‘70s. For them, Uncle Walt and his old world pen and ink iconography represented the purest panacea to a disco and drugged-out decade overflowing with bad vibes and even worse entertainment options. Thanks to the rerelease boycotts on all their famous films, the full length animated features the company counted on to continue their legacy became the pot of gold at the end of the lineage leprechaun’s rainbow. Now, three decades later, they command that their own progeny bathe in the warm, overworked glow of the new creative order that’s learned to capitalize on - and cannibalize - its past.


You see, Disney actually lives by the motto forwarded in the classic I’m No Fool shorts series. As little Jiminy Cricket crooned, “they play safe for you and me.” The basic formula is this - if it made money before, it will make money again. The amount is usually determined less by the quality and the peeked sense of proprietary nostalgia. When home video came along, the House of Mouse protected it’s product like a mother badger sensing a coyote. This made Moms and Dads dismiss the Ten Commandments and covet the Hell out of the rapidly OOP videotapes (and later, DVDs). They needed them for two very important reasons. One, they represented the high end of kid vid oriented amusement. Unlike the infomercial-esque Saturday morning fare, which tended to hide its charms in mechanical cartooning and lax production value, Mickey had a patina of quality.


The second element was even more important - it held the wee ones in rapt attention. Compared to the crap pouring out of the boob tube, the gorgeous drawings and backdrops that Disney excelled at gave children their first taste of true eye candy - and their sugar addicted brains drank it up. As more and more titles became available, the suits suggested extended the more popular series. While recent policy changes have put the kibosh on such direct-to-video revamps, the company learned a valuable lesson: the more you give the world weary adult and their biological responsibilities, the greater the returns…and the need…and the vicious cycle.


Now, there’s the Disney Channel. Instead of having to put in a disc or fire up some aging technology, you can hit the remote and soak your soul in 24/7 House of Mouse fodder. It’s all there - the old cartoons, the new revisions, the original programs, and the trends in progress. Hannah Montana’s rise to record returns is a subject left for another time, another place. After all, little girls like to think in lockstep with one another, and too many careers can be chalked up to such a mob mentality. But the true culprit remains the parent, the people who can’t say “NO”, the individuals who substitute prescriptions for discipline and wish fulfillment for actual interpersonal connections.


After all, one misguided mom let her daughter submit a series of lies in essay form (including the death of a fictional father in Iraq) just to win tickets to Ms. Cyrus’ group hug. When confronted, she claimed innocence, then argued that her choice was not really fraud - it was a creative chance at making her demanding daughter happy. Better minds can dissect the ethics of said decision, but it points to the real problem. If adults were not willing to part with hundreds of their hard earned dollars to feed the need of kids who’ve achieved said want out of endless, unsupervised hours in front of the TV, there’d be no demand. Without demand, no mania. Without mania, no phenomenon. And without the phenomenon, no windfall.


Like the stereotypical miser rubbing his wrinkled hands together at the thought of another possible penny, Disney must love every controversial, craze-fueling second. Even the recent disclosure of a Hannah/Miley double (used to facilitate a costume change) did very little damage to the ever increasing cult. It’s no surprise then that the concert film cleaned up at the box office. Parents have been preparing their kids to be such consumers since the minute they flicked on the flat screen. Without a buffer for what the House of Mouse is putting across (there are dozens of ads each day for the movie, including song-long clips to get the toes - and wallets - tapping), without some manner of matured wisdom to wipe the panic away from the apparent peer pressure of being outside the Cyrus loop, the benevolent brainwashing will continue - unabated and undeterred.


So don’t be surprised if Hannah Montana and her safe as sugared sunshine music make a second big weekend splash at the box office. Even with the ‘had to be their first’ crowd over and done with it, the buzz is still loud enough to draw in the fringe and the merely curious. Nothing stimulates sales like a high profile, and it doesn’t look like the media mushroom cloud is going to die down anytime soon. But there has to be a constituency for every hard sell shilling, and Mothers and Fathers around the country have created the perfect, unfiltered sponge to absorb it all. Call it tradition or trickery, but Disney is more than happy to play along. They may have started it all, but someone else keeps the coffers overflowing. After all, very few children have that kind of disposable income. Too bad their parents don’t have as much disposable time.


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Tuesday, Feb 5, 2008

Brad DeLong linked to this dead-on condemnation of the NYT books section by Timothy Burke, in which he makes this excellent point:


What we won’t be paying for (at least not much) in thirty years is literary and cultural reviews and op-ed pieces. Not just because better can be had already online, in many cases, but because the old media ill-serves educated readers in those areas and has always ill-served them. This brings us back to the ethics and aesthetics of the closed world of editorial elite and the literati that used to exist unchallenged. Now we have choices, and our choices will proliferate still further as time goes on. We don’t have to settle for the choices that come out of small incestuous circle-jerk of New York editors, from their dispensing of favors through their immediate social networks.


Reporting stories is hard work: it involves long hours tracking people down and patiently asking them questions, it involves awkward confrontations with people who don’t want to make news, it involves transcribing recordings and filing lifeless copy because one’s ego is not meant to interfere with the information. There’s a reason these people are paid and why their work is paid for. Having opinions on the other hand just requires curiosity, concentration, and a talent for expressing oneself in a clear and/or lively fashion. Many people have these abilities, which are highly enjoyable to exercise. Hence opinion will proliferate on the internet, to our collective benefit.


And having opinions, moreover, will hopefully cease once and for all to be a means of fantasizing that one belongs to the Algonquin Round Table, as it may have seemed when there weren’t media in which ordinary people could express their opinions widely and publicly, or for us to search for them or run into them, say, on Amazon. Back then, being aggressively opinionated seemed a bit more tinged with pretension, with fantasies of self-aggrandizement. Now there’s no need to pretend or posture; you can just broadcast your opinions and see if anyone cares. Now, one can’t even imagine that it is possible to bluster one’s way into some elite literati with nothing but opinions. And the mechanisms of that particular fantasy—of preserving a critical elite—need no longer hold the public forum for the discussion of art hostage anymore.


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