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Monday, Dec 24, 2007

The Great Debaters [dir. Denzel Washington]


Sometimes, a movie can be too ambitious. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. The story of all black Wiley College and its historic win over the University of Southern California in a 1935 university debate challenge sounds like the stuff of a surefire inspirational spectacle. There’s human interest, compelling characters, hot button historical context, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of race, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions.


So why does Denzel Washington’s most recent turn both before and behind the camera, the crudely labeled The Great Debaters, seem so shallow? Why does a story that should soar plays as stodgy, grounded, and lacking in the basics of insight? It could be the star’s limited experience behind the lens. After all, he’s only directed one other film - 2002’s Antwone Fisher - and the lack of expertise means he’s more journeyman than genius. There is very little visual or artistic flair here as he barely skims the surface of the subjects being explored. Of course, it’s not all his fault. Screenwriter Robert Eisele substitutes grandstanding for guts, going for the cheap shot vs. the choice moment. The result is a message movie that unnecessarily stacks the deck in favor of feelings that no one would ever challenge.


Young James Farmer Jr. (a revelatory turn by young Denzel Whitaker) is desperate to be on the Wiley College debate team. At 14, he’s the youngest student at the school, where his father (Forrest Whitaker, no real life relation) is President. Into his life comes three compelling figures. One is teacher Mel Tolson (an oddly disheveled Washington), the inspirational head of the forensics squad. In his spare time, the Professor champions the rights of sharecroppers and supports Communism. The others are fellow students Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and the sultry Samantha (Jurnee Smollett). He’s a womanizing drunkard, spending far too much time at out of the way juke joints. She’s a big city gal with even bigger personal dreams.


Together, they form the basis of a team that succeeds beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Of course, there is trouble and intolerance all around. Yet even in the dangerous Jim Crowe South, they manage to make a name for themselves - so much so that Harvard comes calling, issuing a challenge: be the first ever black university to take on the prestigious Boston college. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up - even if events conspire to make the journey more difficult than it should be. 


Right away, the gratuitous manipulation is noticeable. Wiley did not debate the 317 year old institution back in the ‘30s, and the team’s triumph over USC was undermined by charges that the competition fell outside the parameters of the proper governing bodies. Both facts find no purchase in this overly earnest exercise. The filmmakers argue that the modifications keep the ‘spirit’ of the story intact. Truthfully, it only makes things maudlin and melodramatic. Since we’ll instantly care about these kids no matter what (bigotry has that kind of sway over an audience) there is no need to make the triumph any bigger, the stakes any higher. Yet that’s exactly what The Great Debaters does.


Similarly, Washington is far more interested in showing Texas as a raging hotbed of horrifying injustice than dealing with the intricacies of debate. There’s a diabolical drawling sheriff (John Heard) who has “failure to communicate” written all over his puffy red face (never mind the neck) and a typical Southern citizenry who use gentility to mask outright personal disgust. We even get the mandatory moment when the educated, erudite black man - in this case, the direct and dignified university president - gets demeaned by a couple of card carrying bumpkins, the better to establish the obvious social dynamic at play.


Let’s face it - racism is a repugnant part of our nation’s notoriety, and no story like this can avoid the subject. But you’d figure with individuals behind the scenes like Washington, Whitaker, and producer Oprah Winfrey, there’d be more thought behind how it’s portrayed. Instead of a constant, the prejudice around Wiley appears like an occasional inconvenience. The only time the fear factor works is during a late night drive when the team comes upon a particularly disturbing lynching. The mob mentality is pure evil incarnate.


In addition, you’d figure a film about the power of words would have something more solid to say on the subject. But aside from a midpoint putdown of a student’s desire to know more about Tolson, and the last act oration, the speeches are constantly compromised. Washington wants to have it all - the great performances, the stellar cultural commentary, the obvious underdog vs. the establishment take down, the smaller interpersonal moments that make a movie sing. And while his cast is quite capable and willing to work with him, (young Whitaker is especially good, encompassing great wisdom while still lost in an adolescent’s torn psyche), he shutters their performances. In its place are questions left unanswered and inferences all but unexplored.


Still, what’s on the screen is engaging and interesting, almost from rote. We know where the movie is going from the minute the team is announced, and the dynamic between the students is as clear cut as broken glass. There will be petty jealously, personal doubts, and the last act decision to rise above both. The debate scenes feel truncated and underdeveloped, as if the creative team figured no one would sit through an actual exchange of ideas. It’s a mainstream, middle of the road approach that keeps this film from finding the inspiration inside the situation.


And yet we cheer. We want Wiley to win, to take down the decent (if slightly stuffy) Harvard men and show them that color creates no boundaries, just plausible positivity. We enjoy the acting and delight in seeing fresh new faces tear into the established stars. There are moments of great joy, great sorrow, great interest, and great contrivance here. Oddly enough, only the debaters themselves wind up being similarly grand. As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. It’s solid, but that’s all.


 



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Monday, Dec 24, 2007

In time for the holidays, BusinessWeek wrote about a service called Catalog Choice that will try to get your name off catalog mailing lists. It turns out that is not as straightforward a task as it seems.


when an activist Web site called Catalog Choice contacted the likes of L.L. Bean, Williams-Sonoma (WSM), and Harry & David and asked them to take thousands of people off their mailing lists, the retailers knew they had a public-relations problem.
How did they respond? Some—mostly outdoorsy brands like L.L. Bean and Lands’ End (SHLD)—made soothing noises. Others blew off the Web site (and subsequently, the people declining their catalogs), and have done nothing with the names.


You think you wouldn’t need an “activist” service for this, that expressing a wish not to be pestered by mail wasn’t a form of activism. It would seem as though you could simply request that the company stop wasting time, postage, and paper by refraining from sending you a catalog you don’t wish to receive. But catalog merchants, as persistent as debt collectors in pursuing their aims, apparently know better than their prospective customers what those customers really want.


L.L. Bean says it has removed some of the names on Catalog Choice’s list, but is still evaluating it for accuracy. The company wouldn’t say how many names it had removed or how long the evaluation would take. Williams-Sonoma, which also distributes the Pottery Barn (WSM) catalog, says it “is still figuring out the right thing to do for our customers” and has only analyzed samples of Catalog Choice’s list.



The right thing to do? What is there to “figure out” about a person saying, “Please stop sending me catalogs”? But retailers know that people say one thing—“I want to save,” “I care about the environment”—and do another when they, in the privacy of their own homes, are confronted with pretty pictures and insinuating fantasies. Knowing this, nothing short of a restraining order would stop the retailers from sending the catalogs. Like all direct mail operators, they don’t care what the recipients say. They only abide by the mathematics of the proposition. If the profit from sales closed through the mailings outweighs the costs of sending out the catalogs, they will continue to do it. And with the microtargeting available, the math can be more precise, they can likely track the sales returns on catalogs send to a specific zip code, maybe an address. Hence, if people don’t want catalogs, they probably need to stop shopping.


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Sunday, Dec 23, 2007


Can’t find the right gift for the cinephile in your life? Wondering what to get the film fan who has every…DVD ever made? Perhaps procrastination has put you in the precarious position of having to cater, last minute, to your resident movie maven. Of course, the biggest problem is not when to give, but what. Every year, it’s the same old gift giving grind. Well, have no fear. Even as the clock is ticking down and the stores are shuttering their doors, SE&L can help solve your mad dash dilemma. Within the 12 suggestions offered, covering three distinct mediums (books/DVDs/CDs) our crack research staff has uncovered unusual, unique, and enticing items to put under your celluloid leaning loved one’s X-mas tree. They’re guaranteed to make one’s pre-present days seem merry and bright. Let’s begin with the printed page:


BOOKS


My Boring Ass Life by Kevin Smith


Kevin Smith likes to talk. He’s the king of yak. As a matter of fact, even when he’s not giving guest lectures, chatting it up on satellite radio, or routinely contributing to his own noted podcast, the Clerks creator still moves words. And here’s proof - a year’s worth of blog journals by someone who feels minutia makes the man. Want to know his bowel regularity, or the unusual occlusions on his skin? It’s all here. Want some backstage insight into the indie filmmaking process? That’s accounted for as well. In fact, there’s not much missing from this all encompassing, thoroughly engrossing diary.

 


Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch


Ever wonder how much of an effect TM - or Transcendental Meditation - has had on the American auteur? This slim but substantive book on the subject will finally fill in the blanks. Lynch is not ashamed of his relationship to the controversial ‘70s movement, and when you read about the way he uses the fugue state as a means of opening up important artistic and mental portals, the results seem rock solid. As with any book on the subject, there is a nonsensical New Age quality that tends to undermine the thesis. Still, this is a key insight into a very complex man’s mind.



Diaries 1969 - 1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin


Sudden stardom. Movie set ennui. Tensions between group members. Minor bits of scandal! It’s all here in Palin’s exhaustive personal journals. While he’s not out to write the greatest entertainment adventure of all time, he is witness to the rebirth of sketch comedy as modern audiences would come to love it, and his place in Python allows him access the camps of both the inspired geniuses (Jones, Idle) and the moody madmen (Cleese, Chapman). There are also some fascinating personal tidbits, including information on dating, relationships, married life, and kids. While avoiding the controversial and the catty, Palin produces a definitive companion piece to Python’s remarkable rise.



To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios by Karen Paik


They didn’t start out as an animation studio. Instead, they were tech geeks giving computer graphics a massive software makeover. Every cartoon they created, in turn, was just a means of testing out a new set of codes. That many became artform classics stands as the truly remarkable element. From their very first experiments in the format to the genre defining gems like Toy Story and The Incredibles, it’s all here - and as usual, the backstory is frequently more dramatic and defining than what’s up there on the screen. As a testament to the tenacity and talent of this group, this book is brilliant.

 



DVDs
The Poisonous Seductress Trilogy


Brandishing a sword, a battered body, and a vendetta the size of Mt. Fuji on her frail little frame, the character of Ohyaku/Okatsu starred in a trio of films in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s which more or less started the whole Pinky Violence/Female Delinquent genre in Japan. And it’s no wonder - these amazing movies (especially the first two in the series, Female Demon Ohyaku and Quick Draw Okatsu) are period piece epics as feminist wish fulfillment. Shockingly violent and disturbingly misogynistic, these otherwise formulaic films are saved by the undeniable star power of Junko Miyazono. She’s a true iconic badass.



The Other Cinema DVD Collection


They remain a ferociously independent distributor handling titles by underground artists (The Kuchar Brothers, Negativland) and wildly idiosyncratic films (documentaries about 8-tracks, short film collections about sex) that no other company would touch. The catalog contains such amazing motion picture artifacts as Tribulation 99, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, and The Rainbow Man/John 3:16. Now you can own all 19 discs in the collection, giving you access to many unheralded gems and forgotten enigmas. Not every film here is a masterpiece, but the presentation argues for DVD’s ability to bring heretofore unknown efforts - many never receiving a legitimate release - to the masses.

 


Starlite Drive-In Cult Classics Collection: A Dusk to Dawn Marathon


The Pom Pom Girls…The Van…Hustler Sqaud…Wild Riders…Van Nuys Blvd…Little Laura & Big John…Madmen of Madoras (aka They Saved Hitler’s Brain)…The Devil’s Hand. Eight films…eight exploitation classics, throwbacks to a time when taking a date to the drive-in was more than just an excuse for premarital sex. Softcore sleaze, unhinged horror, and lots of brutality and violence were the trademarks of an era which saw passion pit playdates becoming the anti-arthouse of the post-modern era. Sure, the prints look pathetic, and the dated or just plain dumb dimensions of many of these films undermine their effectiveness, but this is the ‘70s baby - love it or leave it. 


The Godzilla Collection


Seven movies…seven slices of kaiju heaven. The Japanese love of big movie monsters begins and ends with this classic nuclear age icon, and thanks to the efforts of Sony and Classic Media, fans of the randy reptile have a chance to see him the way Toho Studios intended. Fully restored, complete with Asian audio tracks and loads of extras, you can experience the original Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro Monster, All Monsters Attack, and Terror of Mechagodzilla. With over 20 hours of building crushing, people smashing fun, it will truly be a green and RED holiday.



CDs
There Will Be Blood Soundtrack - Jonny Greenwood


As if we needed further proof that director Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius, he goes and hires Radiohead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Greenwood to compose the score for his latest big screen epic. How a post-modern musician from one of England’s most experimental pop acts meshes with a turn of the century period piece on oil wildcatting is an exercise in harsh juxtaposition, but it works so well one hardly cares. Reminiscent of classical moments from 2001, spaghetti westerns, and other contemporary works, Greenwood uses sound as a supplement, bringing Anderson’s grandiose ideas back down to Earth. It’s a combination that’s magic to the ears.



Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story - John C. Reilly and Various Artists


The songs here are silly, suggestive, and quite scandalous. They’re also almost impossible to forget. Like a genre-jumping Spinal Tap, working within everything from pure pop to rockabilly, country and/or western, Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan’s sonic sketches were exaggerated and amplified by names such as Van Dyke Parks and Marshall Crenshaw, and the resulting earworms are sensational. They fit the storyline and structure of the film expertly, and when they need to be, they carry the plot points all by themselves. Both John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer do a bang up job vocally, showing that the best kind of satire is handled seriously, not sloppily.



The Kingdom: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Danny Elfman


While it doesn’t sound like a stretch - Elfman has been a staple of film soundtracks since the early ‘80s - the approach taken for this Peter Berg action film redefines the composer’s career. Influenced by the director and his love of the band Explosions in the Sky, Elfman used electronic minimalism, casually strummed electric guitar, and a far more ambient feel to the overall symphonics to bring depth and emotional weight to an otherwise straightforward good guy/bad guy shoot ‘em up. It’s a sound so stark, so ethereal, that one can’t imagine it comes from the same Goth groove mind.


Sunshine: Original Score - Underworld


If you can find it, consider yourself lucky. Ever since August, rumors have been circulating that the work done by this underground electronica group was involved in some complex rights issues (something about who could distribute their work internationally). As a result, the amazing aural vistas created for Danny Boyle’s brilliant sci-fi epic have become the Holy Grail for film score aficionados. There are bootleg versions on the web, as well as promised compilations from other regions. If you can locate a copy, it’s well worth the effort. This is one of the best speculative movie scores ever.

 


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Sunday, Dec 23, 2007


Many fans forget that Jackie Chan’s reputation is built on not one but two solid cinematic foundations. Sure, there’s the undeniable martial artistry and death wish stunt work, his crackerjack ability to defy gravity, physics, and human endurance to deliver some of the most mesmerizing set pieces in the history of Hong Kong action. But there is also Jackie Chan the comedian, the sensational throwback to the days when slapstick and physical humor ruled the motion picture landscape. Yet many fail to embrace that side of his performance persona. Thanks to his treatment by Tinsel Town, a myopic view that sees him as a trademark first, an actor second, he hasn’t had much opportunity to let his genial side show. Now, thanks to a return to his home turf, 2006’s Robin B Hood gives us the best of both Chans.


Thongs and Octopus are two of the most accomplished thieves in all of Asia. They are also two of the most troubled. One is a compulsive gambler, the kind that spends his money even before he’s earned it. The other is a craven womanizer, married and miserable while dating several other available ladies. Under the tutelage of their leader, Landlord, the trio makes a fine living. Too bad the cash disappears before they can really enjoy it. When a job comes along to kidnap an infant, the threesome initially balks. The $3 million payday has them quickly shifting into abduction mode. But when Landlord lands in jail, Thongs and Octopus must watch the baby for a week - and with the insane tycoon who hired them desperate for the child, they’ll have to battle the standard toddler growing pains, as well as attacks from some thugs and raids by the police, in order to survive.


Leaping from genre to genre like a freaked out frog and offering up every cinematic element in the book, Robin B Hood (also known as Rob-B-Hood) is a wonderfully overstuffed treat. Pursuing both comedy and tragedy, heartfelt redemption and cartoon like chaos, this is the kind of film that Asian audiences crave. Very much like the Bollywood productions from India that won’t settle for one type of entertainment within a single storyline, this fast paced farce is part Three Men and a Baby, part Police Story era thriller, utilizing everything from musical inserts to high speed car crashes to wow the viewer. Thanks to Genius Products, their Dragon Dynasty Collection, and its ongoing desire to provide Western audiences with the best in Eastern cinema, this new two disc DVD offers supplements and insights into why these sorts of films are so popular. It also illustrates how hard it is to pull one off.


The main element that requires getting used to is the massive shifts in tone. One minute, Chan’s Thongs and his pal Octopus, played brilliantly by Louis Koo, will be trading witty repartee and repelling off the sides of skyscrapers ala Hudson Hawk. The next, Chan will be facing a disgraced family while his partner tells his devastated wife to take a bus to have an abortion. You can have real melodrama one moment, fights with infant feces the next. These frequent filmic slaps in the face are definitely unusual to audiences used to consistent tone and narrative equilibrium. But in the fast paced production designs of Hong Kong, it is complete crowd pleasing on the grandest of scales. If you require a confrontation between father and son, or a moment of misogyny between husband and spouse, so be it. As long as it puts butts in the seats, everything is celluloid copacetic.


And there’s no denying how effective it can be. Chan is amazing here, running the gamut of emotions from good natured cut up to torn apart guardian. His last act pleading for the life of the child is almost too painful to watch. Many make little of this actor’s abilities outside of stuntwork, but Chan is a natural, adept at both acrobatics and emoting. Koo is equally good, giving a shamed sense of purpose to his outsized appetites. Even when his expensive cars are eventually towed, and his high living persona is punctured, he comes across as calculated and cocksure. It’s only when he connects with his tiny co-star that his real humanity begins to bleed through.


Director Benny Chan, working from a script co-written by his same name superstar, keeps the pace brisk and the action lively. There’s a first act hospital chase that’s filled with surprises, and a second act city street free for all that moves at the speed of a sports car. Of course, once we reach the amusement park and the strange estate of our lead villain, it’s one over the top fight scene after another. Oddly enough, the most memorable bits are the small, hand to hand moments - Chan moving about a doorway to subdue an attacker, his air conditioner to air conditioner descent down the side of a building. Even when the story gets squirrely (the whole reason for the kidnapping is telegraphed early and rather illogical), the man behind the lens keeps us connected, both visually and psychologically.


As part of the DVD, we get to hear from the filmmaker as he talks to film scholar Bey Logan. On the enclosed commentary track, they discuss the frequent forays into tearjerker mode, and explain the problems facing any film where a baby is endangered. On the second disc, Chan himself defends the need for drama and agrees with that age old adage about working with kids. We also get the standard making-of material that shows how incredibly complicated the stunt choreography is. One slip - and they happen too often for comfort - and an actor is bleeding from the head, or on their way to the hospital. It’s one of the subconscious thrills of a martial arts/Asian action film. There’s a real sense of danger as human beings, not CGI replications of same, shimmy off rooftops and flip through the air.


As he’s aged it’s clear that Chan is no longer the light footed, foolhardy risk taker he once was. You’re not going to see him vault between trains, or fall through panes of breakaway glass. Instead, his recent output has concentrated on bringing a balance between the daring-do that brought him fame (and undeniable fortune), and the clear limits placed on his 50-plus year body. Projects like The Myth and The Twin Effects films have shown that said equilibrium remains elusive. But by going back to the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton influence of his earliest persona, and exploring every possible entertainment option, he’s stumbled upon a winner. There will be those who lament the lack of nonstop hardcore histrionics, wondering what’s happened to the real Jackie Chan. Obviously, they don’t know this multifaceted talent at all. If they did, they’d see Robin B Hood for what it is - pure Chan magic.


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Saturday, Dec 22, 2007

With all the top 10 lists I submitted to magazine polls, I never considered those to be my real year-end list. The polls are essentially just looking for some kind of consensus and what individual voters have to say is secondary at best. It makes it look like you only enjoyed ten albums each year and that you didn’t like or care about maybe dozens of others that also came out (even if that’s not really the case). It’s basically an ego thing to be involved in that and I admit that I ain’t above that yet. So on my other blog, I posted what I consider to be my real list of favorite albums of the year. But… even then, we always find out about releases that we missed months later into the next year so this is my definitive list as of December 2007.


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